Can Air Pollution Trigger Heart Attacks?

It's true—dirty air could put you into cardiac arrest

Maybe Michael Jackson was on to something with that facemask of his. According to research published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, short-term exposure to air pollution can trigger a heart attack, strokes and even sudden death in people at high risk for cardiovascular disease. Over the long-term, constant exposure to smog or other pollutants may reduce life expectancy.

Carbon monoxide, nitrates, sulfur dioxide, ozone, lead, secondhand smoke and particulate matter are all different types of air pollution that can be hazardous to our health. But, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), carries the highest cardiovascular risks. PM2.5 are mostly produced by the burning of fossil fuels, and are released into the air by factories, cars, power plants, forest fires and even cooking. However, we breathe in these particulates from road dust, wood-burning stoves, construction sites and windblown volcanic ash.

According to the lead researcher, Robert D. Brook, M.D., PM2.5 can trigger sudden death, heart attack, stroke, heart failure or an irregular heartbeat “in susceptible individuals within hours to days of an increased level of exposure, even among those who otherwise may have been healthy for years." In other words, if you have heart disease, you risk for illness spikes for a few days after taking in a large dose of air pollution. High-risk groups include the elderly, people with heart or lung disease, and possibly those with diabetes.

The AHA points out that the heart hazards of pollution are small compared to other modifiable risk factors, like smoking, obesity and high blood pressure, but contends that it is still a “serious health problem.”

The best thing people can do to protect themselves from the dangers of air pollution is work on lowering those other risk factors, by losing weight, quitting smoking and getting blood pressure under control through exercise and a heart-healthy diet.

Past news reports have linked air pollution to a wide range of other health issues, as well, including high blood pressure, asthma in kids, pneumonia, DNA damage and even appendicitis.

Here are a few tips to minimize your exposure to harmful pollutants:

  • Steer clear of secondhand smoke.
  • We breathe in more air—and pollutants—when we exercise. When walking or running outdoors, avoid busy roads, especially during rush-hour.
  • Keep your kitchen well-ventilated. Make sure your range hood has an exhaust fan that pulls cooking fumes out of the house, rather than re-circulating them.
  • Limit outdoor activity when the Air Quality Index is low.

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