Matters of the Heart: How Working to Alleviate Air Pollution Can Reduce Heart Disease

By path2positive

Putting Their Heart into It

For decades, teams of environmental advocates have worked tirelessly to raise concerns about air pollution with local policymakers, in Washington, DC and beyond. It’s been a long and worthy fight. In 1970, after the United States created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the EPA began to determine safe limits and regulate six major air pollutants under the then newly created Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act has been a lifesaver, quite literally.

Tighter regulations for industry and transportation, coupled with technological advances, have resulted in huge reductions for our country in airborne lead, sulfur compounds, chlorofluorocarbons, and carbon dioxide, amongst other air pollutants. Concentrations of particulate matter, microscopic pollutants, have dropped by about 80 percent from their peak. From 1980 to 2000, according to a 2009 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, average life expectancy increased five months because of the nationwide drop in air pollution.

The perseverance of these advocatess has heightened the discussion and has impacted general medical knowledge. In other words, the facts have become widely accepted. We know now that air pollution harms human health. No longer is this just a matter for environmental campaigners, but it’s being assimilated into the coursework of public health and medical schools.

Air Pollution Harms the Heart

Now, medical professionals are taking air pollution to heart (pun intended). A recently released study by the University of Washington, led by Dr. Joel Kaufman, which was conducted on 6,000 people in six cities over the course of 10-years, found that air pollution accelerates deposits of calcium in heart arteries, a known cause of heart attack and stroke.

The study substantiates evidence that medical professionals have had for years, which is that air pollution harms the human heart, and it now explains why. The higher people’s exposure to fine particulate matter from pollution, referred to as PM 2.5 (less than 2.5 microns in diameter and invisible to the human eye), the faster these individuals developed atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries.

PM 2.5 matter is typically associated with traffic transportation sources emissions (black carbon and nitrogen oxide/dioxide), and the increase of these sources accounted for approximately 20 percent acceleration in the rate of the calcium deposits.

These small particles have been wreaking havoc in the human body for years, causing respiratory diseases such as asthma and affecting lung function. In this way, it’s no surprise that these tiny particles are also lodging themselves into the heart. Their size makes them pervasive. While it may seem wild that traffic exhaust can cause heart disease, the upside is we now understand the problem and can begin to address it.

Climate Change, Heat, and Heart Health

The impact of air pollution on heart health goes beyond the individual reaches beyond lifestyle, diet, and genetics. Regardless of whether or not we live in highly polluted regions and are exposed to heavy levels of traffic, there’s an overarching problem to which we all should be paying closer attention: climate change. The increase in global temperatures means higher risk from heat-related illness, and heat can be hard on your heart.

Certain heart medications can exaggerate the body’s response to heat, and individuals with congestive heart disease are more vulnerable to excessive heat. The the elderly and overweight are more susceptible to heat impacts in general, and, which is one reason climate change has the greatest impact on the most vulnerable populations.

Last week, the White House held a webinar focused on building community preparedness to extreme heat as part of FEMA’s PrepareAthon Extreme Heat Week. The webinar provided background information on extreme heat risk, communicated available resources, and included guest speakers who addressed activities to counter the effects of heat. Speakers highlighted actions that individuals, caregivers, public health officials, and others can take to prepare for extreme heat events and protect the public - including especially those at greatest risk.

Addressing Air Pollution is Akin to Cleaning our Arteries

So air pollution causes climate change, and both (as we have learned) cause heart problems. Air pollution and climate change are essentially different stages of the same problem, like a cocoon is to a butterfly. And thought the health impacts caused by air pollution and by high temperatures are discrete, they are also related – particulate matter from air pollution causes impacts on the heart that are compounded by heat, and the other way around. The upshot is that addressing this pollution cures both conditions.   

Cardiologists are accustomed to pressing their patients to exercise, avoid situations of high stress, and eat well. Add to that the 21st century suggestion of limiting patient exposure to air pollution and severe heat, and treating cardiac patients gets even more complex.

Clearly, addressing air pollution was not in the job description for medical professionals when the Clean Air Act was created. Lowering Lowering air pollution to zero may be unrealistic even though there’s no “safe” level of pollution, but comprehensive cardiac care should include engagement on how to improve air quality. And it seems there is no better population than health professionals to advocate for a cleaner climate. 


Anna Linakis Baker, Writer and Social Media Manager for Climate for Health, has worked in the field of environmental health for over 15 years. She graduated from Georgetown University with a major in creative writing and has a Master of Public Health from Boston University. Email her at [email protected]

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