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Air pollution linked with heart damage

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A new report presented by the European Society of Cardiology says that there is strong evidence that particulate matter (PM) emitted mainly from diesel road vehicles is associated with increased risk of heart attack, heart failure, and death.

The lead author Dr Nay Aung, a cardiologist and Wellcome Trust research fellow at the William Harvey Research Institute, Queen Mary University of London, UK, said the cause for the heart damage “appears to be driven by an inflammatory response – inhalation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) causes localised inflammation of the lungs followed by a more systemic inflammation affecting the whole body.”

Regarding how pollution might have these negative effects on the heart, Dr Aung said PM2.5 causes systemic inflammation, vasoconstriction and raised blood pressure. The combination of these factors can increase the pressure in the heart, which enlarges to cope with the overload. The heart chamber enlargement reduces the contractile efficiency leading to reduction in ejection fraction.

The researchers said they found evidence of harmful effects even when levels of pollution associated with diesel vehicles were less than half the safety limit set by the European Union.

Dr Aung said: “We found that the average exposure to PM2.5 in the UK is about 10 µg/m3 in our study. This is way below the European target of less than 25 µg/m3 and yet we are still seeing these harmful effects. This suggests that the current target level is not safe and should be lowered.”

In the UK, where the study was conducted, the Government recently produced its third attempt at a plan to bring air pollution to within levels considered safe under European Union legislation after judges ruled the previous versions were not effective enough to comply with the law.

Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “Air pollution (in the UK) is a public health crisis hitting our most vulnerable the hardest – our children, people with a lung condition and the elderly.” 

Dr Woods added that, while progress was being made in high-income countries to reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer, those caused by lung disease had “remained tragically constant”. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that some 3 million deaths a year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution. WHO also believes that indoor air pollution can be just as deadly. In 2012, an estimated 6.5 million deaths (11.6 per cent of all global deaths) were associated with indoor and outdoor air pollution together.

Only one in ten people breathe safe air according to WHO guidelines and over 80 per cent of the world’s cities have air pollution levels over what these guidelines deem safe.

The Australian Medical Association has developed a Position Statement on Climate Change and Human Health that acknowledges air pollution is the world’s single largest environmental health risk.

Meredith Horne

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