Air Pollution Can Increase Risk of Heart Disease

May 3, 2015

Each of us breathes in 10,000 or more litres of air every day, so it’s no surprise that the quality of that air can impact our health. Whether in large urban centres or more rural settings, air pollution can be a fact of life.

As it turns out, these airborne pollutants—ground-level ozone, nitrogen dioxide and, most significantly, fine particulate matter—can cause major health issues not only for the lungs but for the heart as well. This is especially true for people with existing heart conditions.

“[Air pollution] can trigger arrhythmia, stroke and even cardiac failure,” explained Alan Abelsohn, MD, Assistant Professor with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto, at a recent talk on air pollution and heart disease at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

“More than a decade of innovative epidemiological and clinical research on air pollution and its relation to cardiovascular disease has provided clear evidence that air pollution exacerbates existing heart conditions,” said Dr. Abelsohn. “Even modest increases in air pollution can cause small but measurable effects and increases in emergency room visits and hospital admissions.”

For example, a 2014 University of Ottawa Heart Institute study investigating the association between air quality and heart rate and arrhythmias, measured in patients with portable heart monitors, found a 7% increase in irregular heartbeats in men on days with higher pollution compared to days with lower pollution.

While children, the elderly, and those with diabetes, lung disease or existing heart conditions are most sensitive to the adverse cardiovascular effects of air pollution, otherwise healthy people can develop new cases of heart disease from exposure to polluted air.

Dr. Abelsohn emphasized that cardiologists and primary care doctors can play a critical role in helping to protect their patients by explaining the effects of air pollution on heart health. Physicians can advise patients to regularly check the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI)—which rates the level of air pollution according to health risk—and reduce or reschedule their exposure accordingly.

“Even if someone is relatively healthy, fit and active, they can consult the index to decide when and how much to exercise or work outdoors,” he said. “Prevention can be as simple as rescheduling a jog for the morning instead of the evening if the AQHI predicts a drop in risk overnight.”