North Minneapolis neighborhoods around Lowry industrial plants see 20 percent higher cancer rate

The air around Northern Metal recycling plant has higher than healthy levels of lead, chromium, cobalt, and nickel.

The air around Northern Metal recycling plant has higher than healthy levels of lead, chromium, cobalt, and nickel.

Folks living in north Minneapolis have been complaining about the air they breathe for a long time.

When Neighborhoods Organizing for Change surveyed some 400 residents last year, 83 percent said they or someone they knew had asthma. Likely culprits: the Northern Metal recycling plant, which the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has accused of emitting higher levels of dangerous lead particulates into the air than its permit allows, and the GAF asphalt shingle plant on the other side of the Lowry Avenue Bridge, which produces cancer-causing volatile organic chemicals.

But empirical evidence of effects from terrible air quality remains elusive. Cancer cluster research takes a lot of time and money, and researchers who know what they’re doing. Not to mention, it takes a long time for people to develop cancer and die in noticeable numbers.

Last August, the Bottineau Neighborhood Association hired Tonye Sylvanus, a physician and researcher with Gillette Children’s Hospital, and Stephanie Yuen, a biostatistician and Master of Health graduate, to crunch the data on 19 years of death from the McKinley, Hawthorne, Bottineau, and Marshall Terrace neighborhoods.

They compared the cancer rates of those neighborhoods to that of Mound, Minnesota – which has a comparable population but no industrial sites – and found that cancer-related deaths in the Lowry Area occurred at a 300 percent higher rate, while asthma-related deaths were 844 percent higher. Lowry Area cancer death rates were 19 percent higher than the United States as a whole.

“The objective is to get the air cleaned up so people can take their children out to play without this wretched stench that they smell every other day or more, that makes their eyes water and their throats constrict,” says Nancy Przymus of the Bottineau Neighborhood Association. “So they can have their windows open at night.”

According to city of Minneapolis records, 231 residents have called to complain about air quality and the smell of asphalt around GAF in the past year. The year before that, there were 600 complaints.

“They say complaints have gone down, but no, people have just gotten tired of complaining,” Przymus says. “We’ve been complaining about this for many years, and finally a group of us said we gotta stop complaining, we gotta take matters into our own hands and do some research.”

The second half of the neighborhood association’s research will involve going door to door and talking to the living about their air pollution-related illnesses.