Particulate Pollution Wrecks Heart Health

A review of the research finds particulate air pollution from industry and tailpipes can wreck your heart health.

July 20, 2010

Particulate pollution from car exhaust and other sources can exacerbate asthma and threaten your heart.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—A large review investigating studies dealing with particulate pollution found that the small particles are creating a devastating effect on cardiovascular health. Particulate pollution, also known as particulate matter or PM, consists of a mix of combustion byproduct particles like soot, ashes, and dust, along with tiny droplets of liquids called aerosols. Some you can see, but some particles are 30 times smaller in diameter than a single strand of hair. To complicate matters, cancer-causing chemicals can hitchhike into your lungs via these tiny particles. The analysis finds that although life expectancy rates have increased as air pollution as a whole has decreased, particle pollution is still causing heart and other cardiovascular ailments, and could even be making people more vulnerable to type 2 diabetes and obesity.

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THE DETAILS: The review of particulate air pollution and its effect on cardiovascular health appeared recently in the journal Circulation. Researchers found strong evidence linking higher exposures of particulate matter to an increased risk of hospitalization for heart and lung ailments, including heart disease, congestive heart failure, coronary atherosclerosis, heart attack, blood clots, ischemic stroke, and death.

WHAT IT MEANS: We all know that cigarette smoke is bad for us. But enter particulate matter as another major destroyer of heart health that can possibly lead to or exacerbate high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and even obesity. Particulate pollution has also been shown to worsen asthma. A study published recently in the American Journal of Physiology—Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology last month found that ultrafine particle pollution from freeway traffic emissions is potent enough to induce inflammation that exacerbates asthma. The toxic organic compounds found in gasoline exhaust create free radicals in the body that can lead to disease, the researchers say.

Here's how to start clearing the air of particulate matter.

• Support clean energy. We need energy, but there's no mandate that it has to be dirty and harm human health and wreck the air, like we see in oil, natural gas, and coal processes. To clear the air, tap into solar energy rebates, and tell your reps to extend clean energy incentives on the residential and commercial levels.

• Exercise with the air in mind. Avoid exercising near busy roadways or smokestacks. For an overall indicator of whether it's a good idea to exercise outside, check your local air quality report. If it's poor, exercise inside in a clean air environment (no perfumes, air fresheners, or harsh cleaners).

• Snuff out wood stoves. Because we hear so much about the cost and pollution associated with coal, oil, and gas, many people are turning to wood-burning stoves. The problem is, this method of energy production creates loads of particulate matter, according to the American Lung Association in Washington, where wood-burning has really caught on fire, pardon the pun. Cleaner forms of energy are best, but if you're set on a wood-burning stove, make sure it's a newer model with high efficiency and low PM pollution.

• Tap into telecommuting. Research has found that not only does telecommuting greatly benefit both employee and boss, but it also helps cut out air-polluting commutes. To learn how to develop a telecommuting plan and how to draft a formal proposal for your boss, check out our telecommuting tips.

• Compost! Burning leaves and other yard waste creates particulate pollution and other forms of air pollution. Instead, compost untreated yard scraps, and in turn, you'll get an invaluable, natural soil builder for next year's garden!

• Clean green. The fewer harsh chemical cleaning products we all use, the fewer harmful compounds will be floating in the air to bind to particulate matter and enter our lungs, says the American Lung Association in Washington. A good place to start? Learn how to clean green using our non-toxic cleaning recipes.