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Air Pollution Linked to Changes in Heart Physiology

Could the air we breathe be causing our hearts to change shape?

Photo by Tim Marshall (unsplash)

by Rebecca Clark

Experts say that regular exposure to air pollution may be causing changes to our hearts that could have a detrimental impact on our health. And after comparisons have been made to the early stages of heart failure, how worried should we be and is pollution something we can avoid?


A study of 4,000 people in the UK found that on average, those living in congested areas had larger hearts. But what may be more alarming is the fact that the participants were exposed to lower levels of pollution than the UK guidelines and thus researches have urged the Government to lower them. The fact that even small changes in heart physiology were detected further shows that even a small amount of air pollution is harmful to your heart.


Scientists at Queen Mary University of London looked at the size, weight and function of hearts from people with no health issues who were part of the UK Biobank study. They then compared them to the pollution levels of where they lived and found that those living in higher polluted areas had larger right and left ventricles. Changes like this are similar to those who are inactive or have high blood pressure. Fine particle pollution was found to be particularly harmful as it can penetrate more easily into the lungs and cardiovascular system. However, the study could not prove a causal link between enlarged hearts and air pollution, and it is unclear as to how many people then went on to develop heart disease.


The British Heart Foundation co-founded the study and suggest that quick action is needed to improve air quality. Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “We can’t expect people to move home to avoid air pollution – government and public bodies must be acting right now to make all areas safe and protect the population from these harms”. One solution is changing the government guidelines to those of WHO.


A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "Air pollution is the top environmental risk to human health in the UK, and requires collective action to tackle it.” The Clean Air Strategy is already helping to align the air pollution levels to those of the WHO, but will it be enough? What does your heart tell you?

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