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Air Pollution Can Hurt Healthy Hearts


Chances are, we can all agree that air pollution isn’t great for our health. But while most of us may associate pollutants with danger only to our lungs, a recent study is causing a stir about another dangerous link — to our hearts. We dove into the science to find out how. 

What’s The Deal?

The study, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, links out-of-hospital cardiac arrests to levels of ozone and air pollution (i.e., contamination both indoors and outdoors by any chemical, physical, or biological agent). Researchers at the Baker Institute at Rice University led the study, which broke down eight years of air quality data for Houston, TX. The team examined seven studies to determine if Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards protect the public from heart attacks triggered by air pollution and ozone. 

The results? The researchers discovered an increased level of fine particulate (the stuff that mucks up the air) on the day of or day prior to people having out-of-hospital heart attacks. The increase in particulate wasn’t tremendous — it ranged from two to nine percent — but it was statistically significant. So, do the EPA standards protect us well enough? The researchers say no. 

Is It Legit?

Looks like it. There are obvious limitations to the Houston study, such as the singular location (Houston) and the time period over which data that was collected (in this case, eight years might not be enough to study the issue long-term). But other research also shows a clear connection between heart health and pollutants in the air. 

In 2004, the American Heart Association issued a statement that exposure to air pollution contributes to cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. Since then, further research has strengthened the connection between smoggy air and heart health[1]. In 2005, a similar study to the one that took place in Houston found that short-term elevations in air pollution from traffic-related sources may trigger acute heart attacks in people 65 or older[2].

Another small study found that air pollution can actually alter heart rate variability (a measurement of nervous system activity and heart health that’s been associated with increased risks of cardiovascular mortality) in healthy adult cyclers[3][4][5]. Yet another study found that deaths due to heart failure were more strongly associated with air pollution than cardiovascular deaths in general[6]. 

More Good and Bad News About Air Pollution

OK, we get it. Air pollution isn’t just about our lungs. Despite the scary stats above, there’s also some good news. The State of the Air report, compiled by the American Lung Association, shows that the battle against airborne pollutants has made some serious strides. The Clean Air Act, which defines the Environmental Protection Agency’s responsibilities for protecting and improving the nation’s air quality, is predicted to prevent at least 230,000 deaths and save $2 trillion annually by 2020. And there are ways that we as individuals can protect ourselves, like checking forecasts for high air pollution days to know when to take that workout to the gym.

Nine Facts You May Not Know About Air Pollution

  1. The most common sources of air pollution are household combustion devices (such as a gas range or furnace), motor vehicles, industrial facilities, and forest fires.
  2. Pollution in China can alter the weather in the U.S. In just five days, the jet stream is able to carry heavy air pollution from China to the states.
  3. People who live in places with high levels of air pollutants have a 20 percent higher risk of death from lung cancer than those who live in less-polluted places.
  4. Pakistan’s air pollution is nearly 10 times greater than levels considered safe by the World Health Organization. The average car in Pakistan emits 25 percent more carbon than the average car in the U.S.
  5. Air pollution hovers at unhealthy levels in nearly every major city in the world.
  6. Mongolia is the word’s most polluted country (with an air pollution level 14 times higher than the World Health Organization’s standard threat level), and is home to Ulaanbaatar, one of the world’s most polluted cities.
  7. Children are more susceptible to air pollution than adults because they breathe even more air per pound of body weight (the average adult sucks in over 3,000 gallons of air every day).
  8. On average, air pollution takes one to two years off the typical human life span.
  9. It’s not all about planes, trains, and automobiles. Volcanoes and methane gas from animal waste also contribute to air pollution.

Bottom line, air pollution can be seriously bad for our health. The best way to deal? It helps, even if just a little, to be conscious of our own carbon footprint. Rather than contributing to air pollution, we can help reduce its effects on our communities and future generations.

Select sources for this article were found through Docphin, a free platform that enables users to personalize, access, and connect through medical research.  

How important is air pollution to you? Let us know in the comment section below or find the author on Twitter at @nicmcdermott.



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