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Air pollution increases risk of heart and lung disease, study finds

Experts say that health risks are likely even with low levels of air pollution

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Air pollution continues to pose a serious threat to consumers’ health -- especially heart and lung health. As these concerns continue to mount nationwide, researchers from the American Heart Association are looking at the long-term health risks associated with air pollution exposure

According to the researchers, consumers are more likely to develop heart and lung issues when they are exposed to air pollution for extended periods of time -- even when pollutants are at low levels. 

“When we restricted our analysis to individuals who were only exposed to lower concentrations of air pollution, we still found increased risk of hospital admissions with all of the studied outcomes, even at concentration levels below current national standards,” said researcher Mahdieh Danesh Yadzi, PhD. 

“More than half of the study population is exposed to low levels of these pollutants, according to U.S. benchmarks, therefore, the long-term health impact of these pollutants should be a serious concern for all, including policymakers, clinicians, and patients.”  

Harmful health risks from long-term exposure

The researchers utilized two primary sources for the study: hospitalization records for consumers enrolled in Medicare between 2002 and 2016 and levels of three main pollutants -- fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ozone (O3), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — across the country. The team paid particular attention to conditions like strokes, pneumonia, atrial fibrillation, and heart attacks, among several others. 

Ultimately, the researchers learned that exposure to all three pollutants was associated with an increased risk of heart and lung disease, and each pollutant was linked with different health risks. Of all the conditions, participants were vulnerable to strokes based on exposure to two pollutants -- NO2 and PM2.5. Long-term exposure to ozone led to a greater risk of pneumonia, while exposure to NO2 was linked to a greater risk of stroke and atrial fibrillation. 

However, PM2.5 had the biggest effect on consumers’ health. The researchers found a direct correlation between PM2.5 levels and hospitalizations; each additional unit of the pollutant emitted into the air led to a significant increase in related hospitalizations. It was also linked with the greatest number of health concerns: heart palpitations, pneumonia, heart attack, atrial fibrillation, and strokes. 

These findings are particularly important because participants’ health risks persisted despite the fact that levels of air pollution remained much lower than national standards. Moving forward, the researchers hope that these results change the conversation around air pollution regulations. 

“People should be conscious of the air quality in the region where they live to avoid harmful exposure over long periods of time, if possible,” said Dr. Danesh Yazi. “Since our study found harmful effects at levels below current U.S. standards, air pollution should be considered as a risk factor for cardiovascular and respiratory disease by clinicians, and policymakers should reconsider current standards for air pollutants.” 

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