From Dave Van Hattum, Policy & Advocacy Program Manager

Air pollution in the Twin Cities generally goes unnoticed, and I suspect that unless you have asthma or other health problems, you don’t pay much attention to the handful of Air Quality Alerts each year.   I didn’t realize that we had a smog problem until I saw the picture below from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Air pollution blog photo Other air pollution blog photo
                            Without smog                                                               With smog


But what we don’t pay attention to can still pose a very serious health threat.  The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reports that we have made steady progress over the past couple of decades in reducing the emission of key air pollutants.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that over those same decades scientists have learned that the health risks from even very minute levels of air pollution are far greater than previously estimated.

Recent research from the University of Southern California (USC) reveals a very disturbing picture of how air pollutants, much of it resulting from cars and trucks, can impact our health. 

USC scientists exposed mice to the same atmospheric conditions that humans encounter when driving along the freeway (15 hours per week of smog).   Frighteningly, the mice experienced swelling and inflammation of the brain similar to that associated with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Because the challenge of substantially reducing our dependence on autos seems so difficult, reducing the health impacts of cars is not currently a high public policy priority.  This can and should change.  Other metro regions, particularly our counterparts in Canada and Europe, have rates of transit and bicycling trips several times that of the Twin Cities.

Paul Aasen, the new Commissioner of the MPCA, warns that if current travel trends continue, the Twin Cities’s region will fall out of attainment with federal air quality standards in the next three years.  A report by the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies estimated the health costs of automobile generated air pollution in Minnesota to be over $700 million per year.  The Minnesota Chamber has estimated an additional cost (for regulatory responses) of $300 million per year should our region be placed in non-attainment for federally regulated air pollutants.

$4.00 gas may be a blessing in disguise as it will encourage more walking, bicycling, transit use and carpooling.  Longer term, high gasoline prices should spur a debate about how to fund an expansion of our region’s modest public transit system; we need to be building a transit system that provides real options for most, not a small fraction, of metro residents. We also need to design our roads and communities in a manner that encourages far more travel by bicycle and by foot.