Talking Minnesota air quality with SPH’s Jesse Berman

Virgil McDill | June 30, 2023

Smoke from Canadian wildfires continues to drift over Minnesota and large swaths of the U.S., producing hazy skies and triggering air quality alerts in several states. With almost 500 active fires currently burning in Canada, the potential for poor air quality in Minnesota will likely continue.

Jesse Berman with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, answers questions about air quality in Minnesota, the health impacts of air pollution and what people can do to protect themselves from poor air quality.

Q: Overall, how is the air quality in Minnesota?
Dr. Berman: In general, Minnesota has better overall air quality compared to many states. But, as we are experiencing this summer, we are not off the hook for harmful high air pollution events. Air pollution can travel long distances and wildfire smoke from Canada has been percolating into the U.S. causing some of the worst daily air quality not just in the U.S., but in the world! Wintertime can also bring poor air quality events through something called inversions, where warm air in the atmosphere traps colder air near the ground. This acts like a lid on a pot and allows pollution to build up to unhealthy levels. Though infrequent, these events can also put Minnesotans at risk.

Q: What particles or pollutants in the air are often linked to serious illnesses?
Dr. Berman: The air pollution we commonly associate with health effects are particulate matter and gasses, such as ozone and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Particulate matter is often produced through combustion, like vehicle exhaust or power generation, but burning from wildfires or biomass are major contributors. These particles are very tiny and, when inhaled, they penetrate deep into the lungs. Ozone and NOx gasses are also inhaled and will interact with sensitive lung surfaces to impact your breathing. Sometimes we hear the term smog, which refers to a visible and dense mixture of both particulates and gasses. If you see a brown haze over the skyline on a hot summer day, you’re often seeing smog.

One thing to note is that not all pollution is created equal. It has been shown that wildfire and traffic related air pollution can be particularly harmful to our health.

Q: What health conditions are associated with poor air quality and who is most at risk?
Dr. Berman: The most frequent impacts of air pollution relate to our heart and lung health. Air pollution can exacerbate asthma, trigger wheezing and even cause hospitalizations. In extreme cases, air pollution will increase deaths. While poor air quality can put anyone at risk, some groups are more susceptible. This includes children, the elderly, and those with existing respiratory disease such as people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, during these extreme events, everyone should be aware of their exposure. Air pollution causes inflammation and irritation and can lead to a number of other symptoms such as headache, eye irritation, sore throat, and coughing.

Q: When air quality alerts are issued, what should people do to protect themselves?
Dr. Berman: People can take a few steps to protect themselves during periods of poor air quality.

  1. Run your air conditioner, HVAC system or home air filter, if you have one. Filtering the air can remove a lot of harmful particles.
  2. Avoid the outdoors when conditions are at their worst, including afternoon and early evening. Morning is a better time to plan any activities. It is best to stay inside on high air pollution days, particularly if you are among the susceptible groups. For people who like to exercise outdoors, try working out inside or going to the gym on bad air quality days.
  3. If you need to be outdoors for an extended period of time, wear a well fitting mask, such as an N95 or KN95, to reduce your personal exposure.

Q: How are you advancing research on air quality to better protect public health?
Dr. Berman: It seems that each day we learn of new ways air pollution affects our health. I am working with colleagues at the University of Minnesota Medical School and the Veterans Health Administration to investigate how air quality impacts individuals with pre-existing respiratory diseases. We also have plans to look at these most recent extreme air pollution events in Minnesota and see how they has affected our population. I am also collaborating with colleagues at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health to explore how short-term air pollution affects our immediate cardiovascular responses. We are hoping this research will help inform interventions for people exercising in the outdoors.

Jesse Berman is an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. His areas of expertise include air pollution, environmental epidemiology, exposure assessment and weather.

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