Air Quality, Climate and Health - Minnesota Department of Health

Air Quality, Climate and Health

Everyone has the right to breathe clean air! Clean air is essential for human health, thriving ecosystems, and a sustainable economy. On most days in Minnesota, our air is clean and healthy for us to breathe. However, on some days, things like weather and wildfire smoke can create unhealthy air. Climate change affects air quality and exposure to air pollutants in many ways. Specific air pollutants that are likely to be increased by climate change and result in negative health impacts include particulate matter, ozone, pollen, and mold. Read through our Air Quality Summary (PDF) for a closer look at the details.

How does air quality impact health?

Breathing unhealthy air can lead to minor health impacts, such as a scratchy throat or watery eyes, or to more severe effects like asthma attacks or possibly premature death. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) contributes to several efforts to understand and improve the effects of air quality on our health.

For more information:

How does climate change impact air quality?

Climate change may affect exposures to air pollutants and allergens in three main ways:

  1. Creating both more windiness and more air stagnation events: On calm days, air can be stagnant and pollutants can hang in the air as smog. On windy days, smoke and other air pollutants can blow into the region from other places causing poor air quality.
  2. Increasing temperatures: With higher temperatures, the demand for air conditioning can lead to increased pollution because more fossil fuels need to be burned to create more electrical power.
  3. Lengthening the growing season: Climate change is lengthening the allergy season, increasing the potency of allergens, and introducing plants with more allergenic pollen.

Where does air pollution come from?

image of on-road vehicles, neighborhood sources, off-road vehicles, and permitted sources

For more information:

Particulate Matter

image of cityscape with particulate matter

Particulate matter comes in different sizes (coarse and fine) and from a number of sources, including:

  • Dust and other small particles from construction, mining and agriculture
  • Fossil fuel combustion by factories, power plants, and diesel and gasoline vehicles
  • Wildfires and wood burning for home heating

Acute exposure to particulate matter can result in short-term impairment of lung function and possibly death. Long-term exposure can result in serious cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancers, and possibly death.

For more information:

Ground-Level Ozone

image of cars

Ozone is a gas that occurs both at ground-level and in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Atmospheric ozone protects life on Earth from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. However, ground-level ozone is harmful to human health and vegetation. Ground-level ozone is formed by the reaction of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight and heat. Having too much ground-level ozone can be harmful to our health. Exposure to ground-level ozone can make existing health conditions, such as allergies and asthma worse, and can decrease lung function, cause new-onset asthma, and possibly lead to death.

For more information:

  • Ozone, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency


image of ragweed plant

Climate change is lengthening the growing season for allergenic plants, increasing production of pollen and increasing the potency of the pollen. This may impact the approximately 25 million people in the U.S. who already suffer from hay fever (allergic rhinitis) and potentially increase the number of allergy sufferers. The current health care costs for treatment of hay fever reach over 11 billion dollars annually.

Mold growth also is aided by climate change from increasing temperatures and precipitation. Mold can cause coughing, wheezing, nasal and throat irritation, and can have a greater impact on persons with asthma or weakened immune systems.

For more information:

Who's most at risk?

Some persons are more affected by poor air quality because of increased exposure to pollutants. Individuals who work outdoors may be exposed to outdoor air pollutants for long periods of time, and truck drivers can experience long-term exposure to exhaust emissions. These are examples of chronic exposure. Athletes also may be at increased risk because their rapid breathing allows them to take in more air during outdoor activities and therefore more pollutants. This is an example of acute exposure.

Some persons are more affected by poor air quality because of increased sensitivity. Young children and the elderly are especially sensitive to changes in air quality. Others who may have an increased sensitivity include individuals with an existing health condition, such as:

State Government Innovation Award Winner

On June 1, 2017, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) launched a new statewide air quality index (AQI) forecasting program. By expanding forecasts from two to 18 locations, Minnesotans everywhere can better plan their daily outdoor activities to prevent health issues from air pollution. MPCA collaborated with MDH and the Minnesota Department of Transportation to improve the alert messages. Air quality alert messages include specific actions people can take to reduce their exposure and contribution to poor air quality.

Health, Climate Change and Air Quality Training Module

The MDH Climate & Health Program presented a Health, Climate Change & Air Training Webinar on Wednesday, November 22, 2017. As part of a seven-part series focused on health and climate change issues in Minnesota, the webinar and training module cover the observed climate changes in Minnesota, the public health issues related to climate change and air quality, and public health strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change to reduce the health impacts. The training module can be referenced as a general education tool or as a "train the trainer" module for local public health professionals.

Missed the session? View the webinar recording above or download a copy of the 2017 Health, Climate Change, Air Quality Training Slides (PPT).

Additional Resources

Updated Tuesday, 13-Sep-2022 11:26:13 CDT