Air Pollution and Heart Health: the essentials

Air Pollution and Heart Health: the essentials

Air pollution is bad and it endangers your well-being on many different levels. For example, the American Heart Association estimates that someone dies from cardiovascular disease about every 40 seconds in the United States. These deaths are caused by high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a smoking habit, or exposure to air pollution.

Since 2004, the ongoing Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis Air Pollution Study (MESA-Air) funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has resulted in hundreds of peer-reviewed research articles on the hazards air pollution poses for our health.

In 2014, a seminal article published in the medical journal The Lancet found that long-term exposure to particulate matter and nitrogen oxides can lead to the exhilarated aging of blood vessels. It can also cause build-up of calcium in the coronary artery, which inhibits blood flow to blood vessels throughout the body. This, in turn, can increase the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes.

While this study refers specifically to atherosclerosis, which describes a build-up of plaque in the coronary artery that can have a negative impact on heart health, it adds to a pile of research that urgently warns about the negative health effects of air pollution.

According to the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), air pollutants “contribute to serious, even fatal damage to the cardiovascular system” in a way that a healthy lifestyle just can’t tackle. Next to emphasising the blocking effect of air pollution on arteries, which can lead to heart attacks, PSR highlights the death of heart tissue caused by oxygen deprivation as one of air pollution’s most fatal effects. Based on these effects, cities with high nitrogen oxide concentrations were found to have death rates up to four times higher than their lower-concentration counterparts. Once air pollution exposure becomes long-term, deaths from cardiovascular causes can increase even further.

Among the most dangerous threats that air pollution poses is fine particular matter, abbreviated PM2.5 as they are smaller than 2.5 microns. These particles mostly result from fuel combustion and are thus especially prevalent in big cities all over the world. While humans can filter larger pollutant particles in the air we breathe to some degree, PM2.5 slips through our defences as it is too small to be detected. Read more about PM2.5 here.

Once inside our bodies, PM2.5 irritates our lungs and the blood vessels around the heart. There, they likely contribute to arterial disease in a significant way. However, the negative effects of PM2.5 on the human body have long rested on it tending to occur in correlation with heart disease. Only recently have researchers from the University of Edinburgh and universities in the Netherlands established the causal relationship between PM2.5 and heart disease.


In the experiment, 14 healthy volunteers breathed in pieces of gold during a two-hour exercise. When the scientists analysed the participants’ blood one day later, they found gold particles in most of their blood stream. Even after several months, the urine of some participants still contained gold particles. According to the scientists, this resembles the journey that PM2.5 makes through our bodies.

Dr Nicholas Mills, co-author of the work, said: “We have always suspected that nanoparticles in the air that we breathe in could escape from the lungs and enter the body, but until now there was no proof.”

The evidence was supplemented when patients with clogged-up blood vessels breathed in the gold particles. When the patients had their blood vessels removed the following day, gold particles were found in the diseased parts of the vessels. This adds evidence to the speculation that pollution particles worsen heart disease and stroke by accumulating in already vulnerable areas.

While critics argue that the chemistry of gold is different from pollution particles and that the full mechanism by which air pollutants affect human health is not yet fully explained, the fact that air pollutants considerably exacerbate health risks is widely accepted. The question that now remains is not if air pollutants negatively affect human health, but how.

So, if you haven’t done so already, it’s high time to take air pollution seriously as a health hazard for you and your family. Especially for PM2.5 pollutants, adding an extra layer of filtration between you and the polluted air around you will make the difference between you ending up with pollutants inside your body, or not. Luckily, we have a wide assortment of good-looking masks in different colours and sizes over at our store, which equip you with military-grade filtration technology that even the smallest particles won’t slip through.

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