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air pollution and heart disease risks

How Air Pollution Can Increase Heart Disease and Stroke Risk

Getting outside for some fresh air and exercise is a good way to improve your heart and overall health. What happens if the air isn’t so fresh, however? In many areas, especially cities, air quality leaves a lot to be desired. This could pose a risk for your cardiovascular health.

Air pollution is an umbrella term for any harmful or excessive substances in our atmosphere. These substances are often in the form of tiny particles such as dust, soot, dirt or smoke coming from construction sites, factories, fields, unpaved roads, smokestacks and fires. In some cases, it can also originate from harmful chemicals.

Another key source of air pollution is emissions from vehicles. While improvements to automobile emissions have helped to decrease the damage, the sheer quantity and ubiquity of vehicles mean that they play a huge role in air pollution.

Although smog and air pollution are often considered to be primarily city problems, they can exist in less populated areas as well. It is important to be mindful of air quality no matter where you live.

Keep in mind that pollution can be far-reaching (often impacted by the general industrialization of human society), hyper-local (such as from a wood fire) or anywhere in between. Additionally, although pollution is often considered in the context of human impact, it can be caused by natural events such as wildfires as well.

Air Pollution Impact on Cardiovascular Health

Inhaling air pollution can have both acute and chronic impacts on your cardiovascular health. Acute effects include sudden cardiovascular problems such as heart attack and stroke. These are more common for people with existing heart problems or other risk factors. Although men are more likely to develop heart disease overall, the impact of air pollution seems to be equal for men and women.

Chronic effects of air pollution can include heart disease and other issues with the cardiovascular system and is believed to cause inflammation in the heart and lungs. Especially when prolonged, air pollution can have substantial effects on overall cardiovascular health (and physical health in general).

Researchers focus particularly on particulate pollution (solid particles and liquid droplets) that are smaller than 2.5 microns. This is believed to be the most harmful to health. They are especially associated with fuel combustion. So, this type of pollution is most common around power plants, factories, stoves and wildfires that involve burning materials.

These very small particles cannot be easily screened. Additionally, they more readily enter the body. Therefore, they can irritate the lungs, heart and blood vessels. Over time, they can cause disease in all three areas. Heart disease is the number one cause of SCA.

Even Short-Term Exposure Can Impact Health

It probably comes as no surprise that consistent exposure to air pollution can cause lasting health issues. However, even short-term exposure can have an impact on cardiovascular health.

Research has found that the presence of particular pollution in the air can significantly increase the risk of cardiac arrest and other acute heart conditions, even if the exposure is short. 

As a matter of fact, a 2018 study showed that women exposed to dust, pollen, soot, smoke and liquid droplets that were in the air while they were exposed to lower temperatures, for even a short period of time, were at an increased risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD). 

Non-heart-related conditions, including cancer and diabetes, are also linked with low air quality.

People with cardiovascular issues should avoid inhaling heavily polluted air, such as the air from a wood fire. Older people are also at elevated risk for sudden heart problems from short-term but intense exposure. The bottom line is anyone with risk factors should be careful about going outside on days with heavily polluted air. 

Exposure During Everyday Life and Work Can Be a Risk

Many people assume that dangerous exposure can only happen in unusual or dangerous situations like working directly with polluting materials. However, this is not the case. People can be at risk during their everyday lives and work.

Naturally, those who live near major road intersections, factories or similar sources of pollution are at elevated risk. Those who live in heavily polluted cities such as Los Angeles are also at greater risk.

Long-term exposure is significantly more dangerous than short-term. So, living or working in an area that has elevated pollution levels can be a cause for substantial concern. Anyone who is already at increased risk should avoid these locations.

Researchers have suggested that government bodies need to reassess their guidelines for protecting air quality. Current measures may not be enough to protect public health from the dangers associated with particulate pollution. 

One study from 2020 found that cardiac events are associated with elevated pollution and that the vast majority happened when the levels of 2.5-micron pollution levels were within government-mandated thresholds.

This strongly suggests that the risks may be higher than previously believed. Just because an area is within regulatory compliance may not mean that it is safe.

Precautions You Can Use To Protect Yourself From Air Pollution

Ideally, everyone should take precautions to help protect themselves against air pollution and the associated risks. One of the best strategies is to be mindful of sources of pollution in the area and avoid them. Furthermore, it is a good idea to monitor air quality reports.

Although there isn’t always anything you can do to avoid pollution, the more you do, the better. So, minimizing exposure during particularly bad days can be a smart strategy.

Additionally, as mentioned, it is best to avoid living and working in areas with elevated pollution, if possible. Again, this strategy may be limited by the practicalities of life. Nonetheless, it is optimal to reduce exposure as much as possible.

If working in a space with high local pollution, make sure that appropriate OSHA-approved equipment is being issued. Additionally, if you have been diagnosed with respiratory or cardiovascular disease, you may be eligible for reasonable accommodations to protect you from further pollution-related harm in the workplace.

Learn More About Heart Health

Keeping your heart and blood vessel healthy isn’t always easy. There are many risk factors that can impact your health. However, small lifestyle changes can make a major difference. The more you learn, the better-positioned you will be to protect your health.

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