Air Pollution Linked to Serious Changes in Heart Structure, Study Shows

Sunday, August 12, 2018 - 15:27

A team of scientists, led from Queen Mary University of London by Professor Steffen Petersen, have found that people exposed to air pollution levels within UK guidelines have changes in the structure of the heart, similar to those seen in the early stages of heart failure.

Researchers used data from almost 4,000 volunteers who were part of a wider research effort known as the UK Biobank. These participants were aged between 40 and 69 years old, had been at the same address for the whole study, and were free from cardiovascular disease at the outset. Crucially, their data included cardiac MRI scans, which offer detailed images of the structure and function of the heart, the Guardian reports.

Higher exposures to the pollutants were linked to more significant changes in the structure of the heart. For every 1 extra µg per cubic meter of PM2.5 and for every 10 extra µg per cubic meter of NO2, the heart enlarges by approximately 1%.

Air pollution is now the largest environmental risk factor linked to deaths in England. Globally, coronary heart disease and stroke account for approximately six in ten (58%) deaths related to outdoor air pollution. This research could help explain exactly how and why air pollution affects the heart.

In the study, average annual exposures to PM2.5 (8-12µg per cubic meter) were well within UK guidelines (25µg per cubic meter), although they were approaching or past World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines (10µg per cubic meter). The WHO has said that there are no safe limits of PM2.5. The participants’ average exposure to NO2 (10-50µg per cubic meter) was approaching and above the equal WHO and UK annual average guidelines (40µg per cubic meter).

Dr. Nay Aung, a cardiologist at Queen Mary University of London and first author of the research said the study found that an increase in exposure to PM2.5 of 1µg/m3 was linked to an increase in the size of each ventricle of just under 1%. He stressed that the findings were of particular concern because most of the participants lived in areas with relatively low exposure to air pollution.

He noted that “Although our study was observational and hasn’t yet shown a causal link, we saw significant changes in the heart, even at relatively low levels of air pollution exposure. Our future studies will include data from those living in inner cities like Central Manchester and London, using more in-depth measurements of heart function, and we would expect the findings to be even more pronounced and clinically important.”

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