Joel Kaufman finds a connection between air pollution and heart disease

Joel Kaufman, Professor of Medicine, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, and Epidemiology and Deputy Director of the University of Washington Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health, was recently featured on a National Institutes of Enviromental Health Sciences (NIEHS) podcast, Air Pollution and Your Heart. NIEHS podcasts are part of the Partnerships in Public Health (PEPH) program of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.

Most people think of air pollution as a cause of respiratory problems like coughing and asthma. It turns out that air pollution is also a significant risk factor for developing heart disease, the #1 cause of death in the United States (see statistics from CDC). It appears that high air pollution can trigger heart attacks and strokes in those who are at risk. As evidence, there is often a spike in the number of heart attacks on and after days with bad air pollution.

And now there is growing evidence that living in areas with higher air pollution puts people at risk for heart disease in the long term. Lab studies show that exposure to air pollution can lead to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), high blood pressure, changes in the size and structure of the heart, and increased likelihood of the blood clots that trigger heart attacks and strokes.

There are ways to reduce your risk. One example is to avoid exercising near roads with heavy traffic or at high traffic times. The benefits of being outdoors, exercising and being active outweigh the risks from air pollution, so if you have to choose, choose to be outdoors and exercise. You can reduce inside air pollution by keeping windows closed or by installing a HEPA air filter. Those who have a heart condition can check daily air quality and stay indoors on bad air days.

Yet finally, air pollution is a societal issue which has to be addressed not by individuals but by society. Joel observes that over the past 40 years, the United States has been extremely successful at reducing air pollution. The story is a public health triumph. There is, however, research still to be done. We know that further reducing air pollution levels would reduce negative health effects. We don't know if there a level where air pollution is no longer a health concern. Also, we measure air pollution by measuring fine particulate matter while traffic exhaust is a mix of pollutants. One or a few agents in the mix may cause the worst health effects; if these can be identified, we could target our public health dollars more specifically and perhaps more effectively.

For more on Joel Kaufman's and NIEHS air pollution research, see this video of the Virtual Forum, Near Roadway Pollution and Health, with NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum and other NIEHS researchers.

--Marilyn Hair