Air Particles and Your Heart Health

Ultrafine particles in air pollution may damage heart health

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

(RxWiki News) Just take a deep breath — unless the air is polluted, that is. Ultrafine particles in polluted air may be tied to heart disease.

That's the finding of a new study from the California Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). This study was the first to look at the health effects of being exposed to ultrafine particles over a long period.

Ultrafine particles are generated by gas and diesel engines. They also come from biomass burning like forest fires and energy production.

Neeraj Arora, MD, of Baylor Regional Medical Center at Grapevine, TX, told dailyRx News that limiting exposure is the best practice to preserve health.

"Take home message for people living in cities and other places with air pollution is to try to limit their exposure to the extent possible," Dr. Arora said. "On a personal front, Increasing the distance from the source and limiting the time of exposure should be the goal. From a public health perspective, moving towards greener and other cleaner forms of energy should help in reducing the level of pollution. Investing in rapid and efficient public transport system will go a long way in reducing vehicular pollution."

The research team, led by Dr. Bart Ostro, former chief of the OEHHA’s Air Pollution Epidemiology Section, assessed health data from more than 100,000 middle-aged women from 2001 to 2007.

“Our findings suggest that ultrafine particles may have a significant impact on public health,” Dr. Ostro said in a press release. “This study also provides evidence about the relative importance of the different types and sources of microscopic air pollution particles and may aid in prioritizing and reducing the cost of pollution control.”

All the study patients were California teachers and administrators. The data came from the State Teachers Retirement System.

Dr. Ostro and team focused on midlife and older women. The average age of the study patients was 57.

These women lived in various places across the state. Only 5 percent were smokers.

Dr. Ostro and team used methods developed at the University of California at Davis to estimate long-term exposure to air pollution. They used air sampling and other methods to create models to estimate the degree of pollution.

The women’s exposure to pollution was calculated based on where they lived and for how long.

Dr. Ostro and team found that ultrafine and fine particles may contribute to deaths from heart disease.

Ultrafine particles are very small, measuring about 0.1 micron in diameter — about one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair. A fine particle is 2.5 microns in size — about one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair.

Particles from copper, iron, other metals and soot were tied to death from heart attack.

“This research provides an important contribution to our understanding of the progression of air pollution-related heart disease,” said OEHHA Director Dr. George Alexeeff in a press release. “Research in this area is critical to furthering our understanding of the potential health impacts of the smallest air pollution particles and how they can best be addressed.”

The California Air Resources Board noted that California’s air pollution problem is related to the size of its population, the terrain and its warm, sunny climate.

Around 33 million people live in California. Motor vehicles, factories, power plants and fireplaces can all contribute to air pollution.

Many of California’s cities are built on plains or in valleys surrounded by mountains. These areas tend to trap pollution and keep air from circulating. Temperature inversions — when air closer to the ground is cooler than upper-level air — can also trap pollution in those basins and valleys.

This study was published in the March issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

The National Cancer Institute, the California Breast Cancer Research Fund and the US Environmental Protection Agency funded this research. Dr. Ostro and team disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
March 4, 2015
Last Updated:
March 6, 2015