Air pollution is no one’s favorite thing to breathe but several recent studies have been fingering the particulate matter as the root cause to blame in diverse health issues. Beyond the long-standing association with lung disease, researchers are finding links to heart disease and strokes as well as the possibility of fetal complications for pregnant women. Cardiologist Dr. Robert Brook of the University of Michigan Health System says that pollution is often neglected as an area of patient education for preventing heart disease and other related health issues, meaning that most people just do not recognize the scope of the danger.
An update to the scientific statement of the American Heart Association, published in their December journal issue, ties gaseous and airborne particles to inflammation in the circulatory system, blood clots and irregular heart rhythms to strokes, heart attacks and heart failure. Further studies published in the Fall 2014 issues of Environmental Research have suggested that air pollution may also result in increased risk of congenital defects, low birth weight or premature birth when expectant mothers are exposed to the particulate matter. Results are not consistent across the board for all pollutants and conditions, however, so more research is needed to more clearly define the link.
Air pollution generally consists of coarse particulate matter made up of road dust, construction waste and gaseous emissions from industrial plants, in addition to fine particles that pour into the air via traffic, oil, coal and wood burning heaters, and power plants. Although each particle is about the minute size of the invisible Whoville dust speck in Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, they combine to settle a haze of pollution over any nearby towns and residences, taking the blame for putting residents at risk of diverse health issues. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limit safe exposure to 12-25 micrograms within a 24 hour period, an amount easily exceeded in highly polluted urban areas.
Researchers place air pollution on the top ten list of preventable risk factors for heart disease ranking higher even than lack of exercise, sodium and cholesterol-laden diets and drug use. Lowering exposure to pollution is partly a community effort of walking or cycling wherever possible instead of putting gas-powered vehicles on the road, Furthermore, taking public transportation whenever possible to reduce the number of cars also reduces air pollution.
Studies in Europe discovered that certain pollutants occur in higher concentrations near busy traffic areas and during rush hour. Therefore, limiting outdoor exposure during the periods of highest air pollution is another easy preventive measure people can take to safeguard their health. Vulnerable groups such as people with a history of heart trouble, infants and the elderly should be especially cautious. Homeowners in heavily polluted urban areas should install filtered ventilation systems to keep outdoor pollution from coming in.
Reducing the universal risk factors is the first step in combatting the effects of air pollution says University of Sheffield cardiology professor, Dr. Robert Storey. But the studies have shown heart and respiratory disease fatalities escalate even with short-term exposure to high levels of pollution. People who live in areas with high concentrations of the pollutant PM2.5 increase their risk of heart-related deaths and strokes over those who regularly breathe cleaner air. Therefore, now people need to take the next step and limit their exposure to the remaining pollution as much as possible. The University of Toronto’s Dr. Alan Abelsohn at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health advises people to be keenly aware of the local Air Quality Index when deciding when to spend time outdoors.
University of Michigan cardiologist, Dr. Robert Brook says this is no time to let up on the regulations started in the 1970s that have been instrumental in reducing air pollution thus far. Continuing those efforts and stepping up patient education about the importance of limiting exposure to polluted air is the way to do. He emphasizes that no amount of expedience or theoretical economic stimulus is worth sacrificing public cardiovascular health.
While researchers have squarely laid blame for these diverse health issues in the lap of air pollution, Oregon State University epidemiologist Perry Hystad is not content to point fingers. He wants answers and will be using a recently won five-year research grant to collect hard data that will empower legislators around the world to more effectively protect people against air pollution. He says it is a global issue that needs global answers to enact air pollution solutions that will truly lead the way to better health.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser