Tracking air toxins

City working on a variety of ways to combat air pollution

Jenni Lansing, a city environmental inspector, stands with an air monitoring canister. She has been tracking air quality with the canisters at several locations throughout the city. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

City leaders are working on several initiatives to improve the city’s air quality as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers setting a new standard for the level of ground-level ozone in the air as part of the Clean Air Act.

Besides ground-level ozone, the EPA sets national air quality standards for particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and lead. The new standard for ground-level ozone is expected to be reduced from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 65 or 70 ppb.

Ground-level ozone is created on hot, sunny days by a chemical reaction between volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). Common sources of VOCs in Minneapolis are benzene and formaldehyde, toxins found in automobile tailpipe emissions and tetrachloroethylene (PERC), a dry-cleaning solvent, according to a report presented to the City Council’s Health, Energy and Environment Committee earlier this summer. NOx is formed when cars and other sources burn fossil fuels.

The health impacts of ground-level ozone include lung inflammation and other respiratory problems. The pollution can also damage vegetation and the urban canopy.

Minneapolis and all of Minnesota currently meets the federal standard for the level of ground-level ozone in the air. However, even low levels of air pollution can have serious consequences for public health.

A new report by the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, “Life and Breath: How Air Pollution in the Twin Cities Affects Public Health,” found that air pollution contributed to about 2,000 deaths, 400 hospitalizations and 600 emergency room visits in the metro area in 2008.

In Minneapolis, environmental leaders are focusing on collaborations with businesses to reduce the potential of ground-level ozone from forming.

The city is undergoing a two-year sampling study to pinpoint hotspots of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and working with businesses to reduce emissions, said Dan Huff, director of the city’s Environmental Health Division.

The city has also focused on retrofitting fire trucks and other vehicles in the fleet to make it one of the cleanest public fleets in the nation.

“As we talk about climate change, and one of the concerns as our summers get hotter, we are going to have better conditions to form ozone,” Huff told the Council’s Health, Energy and Environment Committee during a recent presentation.

The city has a Green Business Matching Grant program that helps businesses, such as auto shops and dry cleaners, pay for environmental improvements to reduce VOC emissions.

The program has helped reduce 30,000 pounds of VOC emissions annually since it started, according to a report by the Environmental Health Division.

Jenni Lansing, a city environmental inspector who is coordinating the city’s two-year air quality monitoring study, said there’s several ways people can help reduce VOC emissions in the city — commuting via transit or by biking or walking, switching from a gas-powered mower to a manually powered mower, buying low-VOC paints, filling up cars with gas in the early morning or in the evening and supporting green drycleaners, among other things.

Lansing posts air quality information online at

The “Life and Breath” report by the MPCA and MDH found little difference in air pollution levels when comparing neighborhoods across the Twin Cities. However, it did find higher rates of public health impacts from air pollution in communities with more people of color and people living in poverty.

“Places that have more elderly people with heart and lung conditions and children with uncontrolled asthma are places where air pollution has a greater impact,” Ehlinger said.

The report was based on 2008 data because that was the most recent information available. State officials noted, however, more recent data indicates that air quality has improved since 2008.

MDH Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said the data will serve as a baseline to measure health impacts from air pollution in the future.

“This report helps us see much more clearly than we could before just who is affected by air pollution, how serious the effects are and where we have health disparities that need to be addressed,” he said.

Ground-level ozone and fine particles are the two air pollutants identified by the report as having serious health consequences.

MPCA John Linc said that small changes could add up to a big impact on air quality.

“We can’t control Canadian wild fires or who is burning coal around the world,” Linc said. “We can look at our own choices every day. We can choose the most fuel-efficient transportation we can afford or use mass transit. Small steps really do add up. Air pollution is a day-in-day-out cumulative problem. We can all make a positive impact with the daily choices we make.”


Five tips to protect your health


  1. Be air aware: Check the MPCA Air Quality Index, download a smartphone app with the air quality information at or call 651-297-1630
  2. Avoid exposure to air pollutants: Stay away from wood smoke, tobacco smoke, vehicle exhaust and other sources of airborne particles.
  3. Don’t exert yourself in polluted areas: Avoid exercising near busy roadways, near running stationary engines or on days when the air quality is poor.
  4. Protect yourself when driving: When in traffic, close car windows and have the ventilation system recirculate air to avoid breathing vehicle exhaust; choose less-travelled roadways when possible.
  5. Be mindful of fish consumption: Airborne mercury can result in polluted fish with high mercury levels. Follow consumption guidelines posted at