Over the last decade we've seen plenty of studies linking air pollution, and specifically Particulate Matter, or soot pollution, to heart disease and attacks. Now Dr. François Reeves,a Canandian cardiologist has a new book "Planet Heart: How an Unhealthy Environment Leads to Heart Disease," that puts those studies in context.
“You can sum it up like this: more pollution, more major adverse cardiac events. Pollution of the city is as toxic as cigarette smoke. It has different stuff in it, but the difference is that with pollution, you get it all through your life, from your birth to your death. If you live in a polluted milieu, as soon as you’re a baby you’ll take it in through every breath.”
Reeves' interest as a cardiologist in air pollution issues was triggered by a 2008 World Health Organization report that tracked mortality rates for cardiovascular disease in European countries. In nations with relatively clean air like Norway or even France, the levels were approximately 25 to 70 per 100,000 men. In Russia and the Ukraine it was 600-750 per 100,000. “I was blown away by those numbers,” Reeves says. “We know the classical and well-demonstrated risk factors for heart disease, like smoking and obesity and inactivity. But that’s when I realized the environment has a huge impact."
Just like lead, and benzene, and dioxin, and so many other kinds of pollution, there appears to be no "safe level" of exposure to PM pollution. Any amount is capable of doing some harm, and the more you're exposed, the more harm is likely to happen. That's why fence-line communities are particularly vulnerable to higher rates of illness. In DFW, where PM levels are considered under control, there are still lots of hot spots for the pollutant. If you live downwind of the Midlothian cement plants, you're inhaling a lot of soot. the closer you live – Cedar Hill, South Grand Prairie, South Arlington, Mansfield – the more soot you're inhaling.
In his new book Reeves gives a list of heart-healthy things an individual can do to reduce their risk of heart disease, including increased bike riding, more public transit, or walking and weaning yourself off of internal combustion engines with electric cars and hybrids. “Look at everything you’re doing to minimize your footprint and do whatever you can to have an impact on global footprint,” Reeves says,
But he recognizes the limits of this kind of advice if a person is living in a smoggy city or region and offers overarching policy advice for officials. Cities and governments must continue their efforts to be green, if only out of their own self-interest.
If those governments need any convincing, Brauer points to a financial argument: fewer health problems mean less strain on the public system. “If you improve air quality, everybody benefits,” he says. “It’s really, really cost-effective.
In a study involving approximately 15,000 people, the U.S. National Institute on Aging found that higher levels of exposure to fine particulate matter pollution, or soot, is prematurely aging the brain of those 50 and older by up to three years.
PM pollution had already been linked to other neurological conditions by previous studies, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Disease. Scientists have discovered that the microscopic particles can actually pass through the lung wall and into the circulatory system.
"As a result of age-related declines in health and functioning, older adults are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of exposure to unhealthy air,’ said Dr Jennifer Ailshire, from the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California.
Air pollution has been linked to increased cardiovascular and respiratory problems, and even premature death, in older populations, and there is emerging evidence that exposure to particulate air pollution may have adverse effects on brain health and functioning as well."
PM pollution is found in the exhaust of all internal combustion engines, as well as the pollution from steel mills, smelters, cement kilns, power plants or any facility with a boiler or furnace. The amount of exposure to PM pollution was one of the reasons the federal Agency for Disease Registry and Toxic Substances (ATSDR) found that the health of residents living downwind of TXI's cement plant and the Ameristeel steel mill in Midlothian could have been compromised. Many leading researchers believe there's no safe level of exposure to PM pollution – that is, that any amount of exposure to it has the potential to cause harm.