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Cardiovascular Disease & Air Pollution

Christine Johnson

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the number one cause of death globally. Including disorders such as coronary heart disease, congenital heart disease, and deep vein thrombosis, cardiovascular diseases are closely tied to air pollution. 

What Is Cardiovascular Disease?

Cardiovascular disease is a term used for all types of diseases that affect the heart or blood vessels. 

Some examples include:

  • coronary heart disease
  • cerebrovascular disease
  • peripheral arterial disease
  • rheumatic heart disease
  • congenital heart disease
  • deep vein thrombosis 
  • pulmonary embolism 

These conditions restrict the flow of blood through your body's vessels and can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina), or stroke. Like many health conditions, additional factors like inactivity, poor diet, tobacco use, alcohol, and even air pollution exposure can increase your risk of developing a cardiovascular disease. 

How Does Air Pollution Affect Cardiovascular Disease? 

Air pollution can make your cardiovascular condition worse or even cause new problems, much like air pollution's impacts on respiratory diseases. Harmful air pollutants might also cause permanent heart damage and kill heart tissue.

Short-term exposure tends to impacts patients with existing heart conditions, pushing them into a high-risk zone for stroke and heart attack. When the walls of your blood vessels already have plaque build up, inflammation from air pollution can make the build up rupture and induce a heart attack

Long-term exposure can be even more detrimental, affecting people without preexisting heart conditions. The inflammatory response caused by pollution can create chronic heart problems and fuel the development of a cardiovascular disease. Of the six major outdoor pollutants monitored by the EPA, particulate matter, especially PM2.5, is a major concern for medical researchers. 

Cardiovascular Disease and Fine Particles (PM2.5)

Inhaling fine particles of pollution essentially does two things. First, it reduces fibrinolysis (process that prevents blood clots). Second, it increases coagulation (the process of blood changing to a solid or semi-solid state). Based on these two underlying processes, the cardiovascular effects of air pollution are:

  • Clotting hypothesis – This idea suggests that inhaling small particles will trigger inflammation. This leads to the production and release of chemicals that activate clotting.
  • Neural hypothesis – This idea suggests that pollutants stimulate neural receptors in the lungs. This stimulation then affects the rhythm of the heart, causing irregularities. An irregular heart rate can lead to cardiac arrest and even heart failure.

How To Protect Your Heart From Pollution

An estimated 91% of people breathe polluted air. To understand the risks in your area, talk your doctor and actively seek more resources.

Being aware and measuring pollutants is your first line of defense. Take extra precautions if you face exposure to high levels of air pollution on a regular basis. For more information on how to protect yourself from air pollution, check out our article below. 

Air Pollution: What You Need to Know