Testing Air Quality IQ

Air Quality Awareness Week highlights how pollution may affect heart disease patients and others

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Do you tend to ignore air quality reports, thinking they're only for people with certain breathing problems? This week, experts are highlighting how air quality can affect everyone.

Air Quality Awareness Week runs from April 27 to May 1 this year. Groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are stressing that poor air quality should be everyone's concern — especially those with heart problems.

"Air pollution — especially particle pollution — is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease," according to the EPA. "Exposure to fine particles has been linked to heart attacks, strokes, and early death in people with heart disease."

Neeraj Arora, MD, a cardiologist at Baylor Regional Medical Center in Grapevine, TX, told dailyRx News that past studies have shown an increased risk of heart problems with both short- and long-term exposure to air pollution.

Dr. Arora explained that the exact reason for this link is unclear, but that a number of theories have been suggested, such as an increased inflammatory response, increased plaque in blood vessels and a narrowing of the blood vessels in response to air pollution.

"Elderly and people with underlying heart disease are more susceptible to these ill effects and are at a greater risk, even for short term exposure," Dr. Arora said.

Two air quality factors that can affect health are particle pollution (tiny pieces of matter like dust, smoke, soot and liquid that are in the air) and ground-level ozone (smog).

Ozone can worsen symptoms for people with conditions like asthma, bronchitis or emphysema. However, both the CDC and EPA noted that air pollution can affect anyone.

Ozone can cause lung and throat irritation, wheezing, coughing and trouble breathing when exercising outside — even among those without lung problems.

"Children and teenagers are more susceptible to air pollution because their lungs are still developing, they are usually more active outdoors, and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults," according to the EPA.

Older adults may also face an increased risk of harm from air pollution. Factors like being overweight and having high blood pressure may increase this risk even more.

"Even healthy adults who are active outdoors are at risk from ozone, which can make it more difficult to breathe deeply, cause coughing or a scratchy throat, and inflame and damage the lining of the lungs — damage that can continue even after symptoms are gone," according to the EPA.

The CDC and EPA also stressed that by using the EPA's Air Quality Index, which provides warnings when pollution levels are likely harmful, excessive exposure to air pollution can be avoided.

If the Air Quality Index reaches Orange, or unhealthy for sensitive groups, it may be a good time to make some changes. Runners — even healthy ones — could experience harmful effects of air pollution at this level.

"Reduce the amount of ozone you breathe in a few ways: Plan your run for the morning, when ozone levels generally are lower; shorten your run, walk instead, or run on a treadmill indoors, where ozone levels are lower," according to the EPA.

"Patients with heart disease and with the other conventional risk factors for [coronary artery disease] including hypertension and diabetes are at a higher risk from air pollution and should be extra careful in limiting their exposure and also in controlling their cardiac risk factors aggressively," Dr. Arora said.

A number of organizations and government groups observe Air Quality Awareness Week during the last week of April each year.

Review Date: 
April 24, 2015
Last Updated:
April 28, 2015