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Diane Bailey’s Blog

Air Pollution: An Assault on the Heart, Brain and Lungs

Diane Bailey

Posted February 17, 2012

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A number of studies have come out recently confirming that air pollution at levels that many people commonly experience can have serious impacts to our hearts, brains and lungs.  A major review of 34 separate studies around the world found that short term exposure to a number of different air pollutants – fine particulates, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide - can increase the risk of heart attacks.

How can air pollution cause a heart attack?  The exact mechanism is unknown, but experts believe that air pollution messes with our cardiovascular system by: significantly increasing inflammation, causing irregular heart-beats, increasing the viscosity of our blood (e.g. thickening it so that it may accelerate the build-up of plaque in arteries or “atherosclerosis” and could possibly dislodge existing plaques), and increasing “vascoconstrictors” among other ill effects.

Across the globe, heart attacks account for most of the 1.3 million deaths caused by outdoor air pollution each year, according to the World Health Organization.  According to one estimate,  cardiopulmonary deaths resulting from air pollution may account for five percent of global mortality.  These cardiopulmonary deaths include stroke in addition to heart attacks.  One recent study showed an up to 34 percent increase in risk of stroke from exposure to fine particulate pollution at levels considered generally safe by the US EPA. 

Among the many hazards of fine particulate pollution, there is “evidence that they can penetrate the brain through the nasal passages,” according to one researcher, who just published a study of cognitive decline related to particulate pollution.  That study showed a two year accelerated aging effect from long-term exposure to particulate pollution at “levels typically experienced by many individuals in the United States.”

Cardiologists and other medical specialists have begun to be more outspoken about the severe health impacts of air pollution.  One expert from UCLA notes that there is more than enough evidence that air pollution kills.  And the risks are not confined to sick people or those with pre-existing heart conditions; the risk of a “cardiovascular event brought on by air pollution” applies to healthy people as well. 

Increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and cognitive impairment are just a few of the many serious health impacts related to air pollution, which also include asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, other respiratory illnesses, adverse birth outcomes,  cancer, and premature death.  An excellent recent special report on the air we breathe in Arizona included interviews with several pulmonologists, noting: “Bad-air days bring in more people [to the hospital].  Studies have shown there is a direct correlation and we see it.”

The Arizona piece goes on to tell a heart breaking story of a twelve year old girl utterly debilitated by air pollution.  She says: “I can’t run that much or my chest hurts.  If there’s pollution, my head hurts.”  Her parents report that her asthma has worsened causing her to miss 40 days of school last year. Similar stories of debilitating asthma and air pollution are all too common across the US.  In addition to the health, social and emotional toll that these illnesses take on families, the economic costs can be steep.  One recent study of the burden of asthma attributable to pollution in Southern California estimates millions of dollars in expense to the City of Long Beach accounting for more than 20 percent of its Health Department budget.

We have long known that when air pollution spikes, so do hospital admissions for asthma and other illnesses, but millions of people live in toxic hotspots near freeways and other major pollution sources where levels of fine particulates and other pollutants reach unhealthy levels every day.  While the highly visible ozone smog remains a problem in many regions, it’s the pollution that we can’t see that is the most dangerous to our health.  But we’re not helpless; there’s much that can be done to cut pollution associated with heart attacks, stroke, asthma and the many other health impacts.  Join us in our fight for clean air.

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Graham CliffFeb 17 2012 06:01 AM

I wrote about my concerns WRT "Nanoparticles and Public Health" last year in Microscopy Today, page 72, Cambridge University Press, May, 2011 -
This article simply repeats those concerns. They have been expressed by others but ignored. One of my students in her 1981 thesis remarked that these (soot) particles would have "long-range environmental impact". Perhaps today, after an incubation period of about 31 years, the truth is coming home to roost, apparently? Just like it does with smoking and with asbestos.

Max WallisFeb 17 2012 11:11 AM

The new 'major study' covers only short-term 'acute' effects. We now know that chronic effects of particulate pollution are more severe, with 'dose' coefficient established in the 2006 Pope-Dockery review 6-17% per 10ug/m3 increase in PM2.5. The UK and EU take a lower coefficient but inferior analysis, as I wrote in "UK continues to undercount Air Pollution's Health-harm" 23 September 2007

Diane BaileyFeb 17 2012 11:34 AM

That's a good point. Air pollution can do serious damage just from short term exposure. However, as you note, the long term exposure impacts are also sobering. Several leading experts including US EPA staff just published a review of the national health burden, finding that 130,000 premature deaths per year, among other impacts, are caused by air pollution in the US. See:
Estimating the National Public Health Burden Associated with Exposure to Ambient PM2.5 and Ozone. Neal Fann*, Amy D. Lamson, Susan C. Anenberg, Karen Wesson, David Risley, Bryan J. Hubbell

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