Pollution and Heart Health

Pollution is the contamination of the environment with harmful substances. The most common type of pollution is air pollution, which increases the risk of heart disease, lung disease, and cancer. However, not everyone is affected equally. Some regions and countries experience a higher burden of air pollution, and some conditions predispose individuals to more harmful effects from pollution.

This article discusses types of pollution and the effects of air pollution on cardiovascular health.

pollution over city

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Types of Pollution

A pollutant is a substance or type of energy that contaminates the environment. Pollution can come from natural and manmade sources, and has effects on wildlife, climate, and human health.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is the most common type of pollution and occurs in both the indoor and outdoor air that we breathe. Air pollutants include chemicals like methane, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and particulate matter (PM).

What Is Particulate Matter?

PM includes carbon, sand, and dust particles, and ultrafine particles. PM is specified by particle size, with smaller size being even more dangerous to a person's health. For example, PM2.5 denotes particles of up to 2.5 micrometers, which can be inhaled through breathing and cause health problems.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has specified Air Pollution Guidelines for the various air pollutants, and governments can enact policies to help reduce sources of air pollution.

Sources of outdoor air pollution include:

  • Burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and gas for transportation and electricity)
  • Trash incineration
  • Wildfires
  • Sandstorms
  • Volcanic eruptions

Water Pollution

Water pollution harms the ocean ecosystem, causes acid rain, and affects drinking water. Pollutants in the water come from various sources, including:

  • Chemical runoff from fertilizer and pesticides
  • Sewage
  • Oil spills
  • Volcanic eruption
  • Animal waste
  • Algae

Ingesting water contaminated with arsenic, for example, has been linked to heart disease.

Land Pollution

Land pollution includes pollution of soil and land areas with contaminants. Mining products, chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides, and waste disposal contribute to land pollution.

Heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and cadmium have been associated with heart disease. These elements are found naturally in soil, but can also be introduced through fertilizers, pesticides, and contaminated water.

Radioactive Pollution

Radioactive materials can be found naturally, or they can enter the environment through:

  • Mining of radioactive elements
  • Power generation from nuclear power plants
  • Radioactive waste disposal
  • Nuclear weapons development

Significant radiation exposure has been linked to cancer.

Light Pollution

Light pollution is due to the use of artificial light sources in times of natural darkness.

Light pollution directly affects animal migration and habitats. It has been associated with disturbance of sleep patterns and increased stress in humans, both of which contribute to inflammation and heart disease.

Noise Pollution

Even noise pollution has been shown to have negative health effects. Traffic noise has been shown to affect sleep and stress hormone levels, and increase the risk of heart disease.

Pollution Exposure and Mortality

The World Health Organization estimates that 99% of people on earth are exposed to air that exceeds recommended levels of pollution. Air pollution is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Globally in 2019, pollution was responsible for 9 million deaths, almost 62% of which were due to cardiovascular disease.

Air Pollution and Risk of Heart Disease

Studies have demonstrated a direct link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease and mortality.

Air pollution appears to have nearly the same risk as smoking on heart health. There is also some evidence that air pollution may increase high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attacks, and heart failure.

Short and Long-Term Effects

According to a 2018 review:

  • Short-term exposure to fine particle air pollution can increase the risk of cardiovascular events by 1%-3%.
  • Longer-term exposure increases the risk of heart disease by about 10% through its effects on blood sugar and blood pressure.

Who Is Affected?

Air pollution does not affect populations equally. Some parts of the world are exposed to higher levels of air pollution.

According to 2021 data from the World Health Organization, the Southeast Asia and Eastern Mediterranean regions are among those with the highest PM pollution. Furthermore, in the United States, some racial and ethnic groups, people living in poverty, and people living in urban areas experience higher levels of air pollution.

Adults over 65 years old, infants, and those with underlying lung disease, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), have increased risk from exposure to air pollution.

What Can Be Done About Air Pollution Exposure?

When PM levels are high, it can cause symptoms like itchy or watery eyes, throat irritation and coughing, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort. Those with underlying heart and lung conditions have an increased risk for complications.

Ways to decrease indoor air pollution include:

  • Changing HVAC filters frequently
  • Obtaining annual inspections of heating and cooling appliances and repairing any leaks promptly
  • Using exhaust fans when cooking
  • Using appropriate wood in wood-burning fireplaces and stoves
  • Not allowing cigarette smoking in the home

Outdoor pollution is out of our direct control, but when PM levels are high, the following measures can be taken:

  • Stay indoors and keep windows and doors shut
  • Avoid exercising outdoors
  • Use air purifiers
  • Wear properly fitted N-95 or P-100 respirator masks when outdoors
  • When driving, ensure that the air condition setting is using recirculate mode

In extreme cases when the air quality index indicates hazardous levels, you may be asked to evacuate the area.

In addition, you can decrease your footprint and avoid adding to already high levels air pollution by not burning things like fireplace wood, garbage and leaves, not using gas-powered lawn equipment, and minimizing car trips.

On a larger scale, policy changes can be enacted to help regulate air pollution.

Heart Disease Prevention

While the measures above can be taken during periods of high air pollution to help counteract its negative effects, there are general measures you can take to keep your heart as healthy as possible, regardless of pollution exposure.

Lifestyle changes like exercising and healthy diet are the cornerstones of preventing heart disease. It's not recommended to exercise outdoors during periods of high air pollution, but leading an active lifestyle has immense benefits for the heart.

A healthy diet includes:

  • Eating lots of fruits and vegetables, beans, and legumes
  • Avoiding processed meats (choose lean cuts and fish as protein sources)
  • Avoiding sugar sweetened beverages
  • Avoiding foods high in salt and sugar

Knowing your risk of heart disease is important. Getting your cholesterol checked and having your heart disease risk calculated with the Atherosclerotic Risk Assessment calculator can determine whether you can benefit from medication. If you have elevated risk, statins can help lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Summary

Environmental pollution, and air pollution in particular, has been linked to heart disease. People living in certain geographic and regional locations and those with underlying conditions tend to be more affected by air pollution. Steps can be taken to prevent indoor air pollution exposure, and everyone should try to implement healthy habits to prevent heart disease.

A Word From Verywell

Even though it's not always visible, air pollution can have negative effects on your health. It's important to take measures to protect yourself from air pollution and maintain healthy practices for heart health. Knowing your risk for heart disease is a great first step.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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