Long term exposure to air pollution has been linked to heart attacks and strokes in a study by US researchers because it can speed up atherosclerosis or 'hardening of the arteries'. The study is published in this week's PLOS Medicine.
The researchers, led by Sara Adar, John Searle Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, University of Michigan School of Public Health, and Joel Kaufman, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and Medicine, University of Washington, found that higher concentrations of fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) were linked to a faster thickening of the inner two layers of the common carotid artery, an important blood vessel that provides blood to the head, neck, and brain. They also found that reductions of fine particulate air pollution over time were linked to slower progression of the blood vessel thickness. The thickness of this blood vessel is an indicator of how much atherosclerosis is present in the arteries throughout the body, even among people with no obvious symptoms of heart disease.
"Our findings help us to understand how it is that exposures to air pollution may cause the increases in heart attacks and strokes observed by other studies," Adar said.
After adjusting for other factors such as smoking, the authors found that on average, the thickness of the carotid vessel increased by 14 Ám each year. The vessels of people exposed to higher levels of residential fine particulate air pollution, however, thickened faster than others living in the same metropolitan area.
"Linking these findings with other results from the same population suggests that persons living in a more polluted part of town may have a 2 percent higher risk of stroke as compared to people in a less polluted part of the same metropolitan area," Adar said.
"If confirmed by future analyses of the full 10 years of follow-up in this cohort, these findings will help to explain associations between long-term PM2.5 concentrations and clinical cardiovascular events," the authors wrote.
In an accompanying Perspective, Nino Kuenzli from the University of Basel in Switzerland says: "the [Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis and Air Pollution study] further supports an old request to policy makers, namely that clean air standards ought to comply at least with the science-based levels proposed by the World Health Organization."