Even low levels of air pollution cause serious changes in the heart

People exposed to air pollution levels well within government guidelines can have changes in the structure of the heart, similar to those seen in the early stages of heart failure.

Even air pollution levels in line with UK government guidelines can lead to serious changes in the hearts of healthy people, according to new research.

In people living near loud, busy roads, and who are exposed to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) or small particles of air pollution known as PM2.5, larger right and left ventricles in the heart can develop.

The ventricles are important pumping chambers in the heart and, although the participants in the new study had no symptoms, similar heart remodelling is seen in the early stages of heart failure.

The research conducted by Queen Mary University of London looked at data from around 4,000 participants, including information on their lifestyles, health record and details on where they have lived.

Participants also had blood tests and health scans, and heart MRI was used to measure the size, weight and function of the participants’ hearts at fixed times.

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

In the study, average annual exposures to PM2.5 were well within UK guidelines (25µg per cubic metre), although they were approaching or past World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines (10µg per cubic metre).

With air pollution now the largest environmental risk factor linked to deaths in England, Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, warned: “Government and public bodies must be acting right now to make all areas safe and protect the population from these harms.

“What is particularly worrying is that the levels of air pollution, particularly PM2.5, at which this study saw people with heart remodelling are not even deemed particularly high by the UK Government – this is why we are calling for the WHO guidelines to be adopted.”

Photo credit: David Holt/ CC BY 2.0

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