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Minnesota air quality is better if you're rich, white, and not in Ramsey County

Cars, trucks, and other vehicles emit much more pollution in certain areas (and around certain people) than others.

Cars, trucks, and other vehicles emit much more pollution in certain areas (and around certain people) than others. Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Here in Minnesota, our largest source of greenhouse gases is transportation.

About 70 percent of these gases come from passenger vehicles—cars and trucks. The Union of Concerned Scientists—a nonprofit staffed by scientists, analysts, economists, and other experts—is, well, concerned. Not just for the planet, but for the human bodies living on it.

All that air pollution contains harmful particulate matter that can penetrate deep into the lungs. Chronic exposure has been linked to heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, asthma, and/or slowed lung function in kids. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recently reported that in 2013, particulate and ozone pollution contributed to anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000 deaths in the state.

Not all pollution is created equal. To that end, the union strove to find out who in Minnesota is currently breathing the dirtiest air, using pollution estimates from cars, trucks, buses, and other forms of transportation. The results, published this week, are pretty stark.

Geographically speaking, Ramsey County is dealing with the worst pollution levels in the state, about 116 percent higher than average. That's a far cry even from its neighbor, Hennepin County, which has levels 54 percent higher than average.

These two counties are home to 1.7 million Minnesotans, almost a third of the state’s population, who are breathing in more junk than the rest of the state. The next most polluted air is in Washington County (35 percent above average), Dakota County (20 percent), and Anoka County (13 percent.)

That's not the only way to dice up this data. It also tells us that you’re way more likely to be breathing noxious air if you’re low-income. In Hennepin alone, people earning less than $20,000 a year breathe air that is 25 percent more polluted than the rest of the county. If you’re earning more than $200,000 a year, congratulations, because your air is about 15 percent cleaner than average.

But the worst disparity comes when you break it down by race. Minnesotans of color, the report says, experience an “undeniable ‘pollution disadvantage.’”

Relative to the average population, African Americans are subject to 65 percent higher pollution concentrations from cars and other vehicles. For Latinx residents, it’s 28 percent higher. If you’re white, it’s 9 percent lower.

We’ve seen this phenomenon play out in other ways. A recent study found that Minneapolis’ old redlined neighborhoods were literally physically hotter than its richer, whiter areas—by about 11 degrees—suggesting they might be more vulnerable to extreme heat as the climate changes.

“Since air pollutants… are emitted at the same time as climate-damaging greenhouse gases, our on-road vehicles have a large role to play in both their air pollution and climate fronts,” the report says. “These two forms of pollution grow hand-in-hand, and need to be confronted hand-in-hand as well.”

To that end, Minnesota has been considering adopting clean car standards, as California and 13 other states have already done. We’re currently in the public comment phase of decision-making, with strong opiinions (though, not all of them original)  for and against.

Ask these worried scientists, and they say we should go for it.

“Minnesota needs to continue the effort to reduce air pollution from vehicles, placing a high priority on actions that reduce the inequitably distributed burden of air pollution in the state,” the study says. This data is “quantitative evidence” of the need for and importance of such programs.

Take a deep breath. If what goes into your lungs don’t seem so bad, maybe that's because it's much worse for someone else.