Taking Air Pollution to Heart

Heart attack risk rose with exposure to air pollution at levels below established limits

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

(RxWiki News) Air pollution levels around the globe have been rising in recent years. Millions of people die each year from this pollution, as toxins not only cause lung problems but heart trouble as well.

A new study has provided further evidence of the health hazards of air pollution. The study found that high levels of particulate matter in the air, even below regulatory limits, may increase heart attack risk, as well as atrial fibrillation (abnormal heart rhythm) and other serious heart problems.

"Avoid exercising outdoors when air pollution levels are high."

Savina Nodari, MD, in the Department of Medical and Surgical Specialties, Section of Cardiology, Brescia, Italy, led this investigation comparing average daily concentrations of particulate matter in the air with daily hospitalizations for cardiac events in Brescia (a highly industrialized area) from 2004 to 2007.

More than two million people die each year from manmade air pollution, according to a 2013 report from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Inhaling fine particulate matter (commonly known as smog) from industrial and domestic sources such as exhaust from cars and factories is likely to blame.

Air pollution is measured as particulate matter 10 or PM10. PM10 means that particles have a diameter of 10 micrometers or less (one-seventh the width of a human hair). These particles may cause negative health effects because they are small enough to enter a person’s lungs.

The European Union and the US Environmental Protection Agency has set a PM10 safety threshold of 50 micrograms/m3 (a measure of particulate concentration in the air).

Dr. Nodari and her colleagues found a significant link between PM10 levels and hospital admissions for acute cardiovascular events such as acute coronary syndromes, heart failure, worsening heart failure, paroxysmal atrial fibrillation and ventricular arrhythmias.

For every 10 microgram increase in PM10, hospital admission for cardiac problems rose by 3 percent, according to the study.

Because the city of Brescia has an average PM10 level at the threshold of 50 micrograms/m3, and hospitalizations for cardiac events rose, the researchers believe that this current threshold is too high.

“The cutoff should be reduced to 20 to 30 micrograms/m3, or even less if possible, because, like cholesterol, the risk is continuous,” said Dr. Nodari in a press release. “The higher the levels the greater the risk. If we can obtain a lower level of PM10 probably we will lower the risk of heart disease.”

During higher levels of PM10, more hospitalizations for cardiac events occurred among those who had been previously hospitalized for a heart problem, according to the report. Also, older people (over age 65) and men appeared to be more prone to face heart issues as air pollution levels increased.

“Regardless of local environmental and social policies to approve air quality, the negative effect of air pollution continues to be an important public health problem,” said Dr. Nodari in a statement.

The American Lung Association (ALA) offers suggestions on how to help lower air pollution levels and how to protect yourself from the dangers of air pollution. For example, ALA suggests checking daily forecasts of air quality in your area and avoiding exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high.

This study was presented at the Acute Cardiac Care Congress 2013, the annual meeting of the Acute Cardiovascular Care Association (ACCA) of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC), October 12-14 in Madrid, Spain. The results should be viewed as preliminary and are not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Review Date: 
October 14, 2013
Last Updated:
October 15, 2013