Air pollution and cardiovascular disease

Cars air pollution

Outdoor air pollution contributes to around 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year and is linked to cardiovascular disease. 

How does air pollution impact cardiovascular health?

Our research has shown that high levels of air pollution can make existing heart conditions worse and increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke. 

Recent BHF research has found that tiny particles in diesel exhaust can prevent blood vessels from relaxing and contracting properly, resulting in an increased risk of clots developing in coronary arteries, which can cause a heart attack

Other research suggests that breathing in air pollution can lead to atherosclerosis – the build-up of fatty material inside the arteries that can lead to coronary heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular conditions.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 80% of deaths related to outdoor air pollution globally are due to heart disease or stroke.

Watch: Why is air pollution a problem?


What causes air pollution?

Two of the most common and harmful types of air pollution are nitrogen dioxide (also known as NO2) and particulate matter. There is a particularly strong link between cardiovascular disease and particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers (that’s a thirtieth of the width of a strand of hair), known as PM2.5.

Road transport is a leading contributor to outdoor air pollution and diesel vehicles produce especially high levels of harmful emissions, including NO2 and PM2.5.

Given the large number of people in the UK living with heart disease and the likelihood of their exposure to air pollution, particularly PM2.5 emissions produced by diesel vehicles, it is imperative that all levels of government around the UK work to reduce outdoor air pollution and deliver a significant shift away from diesel vehicles.

Is there a safe level of exposure to air pollution?

The WHO says that there is no safe level of exposure to PM2.5. However, they do recommend a level that limits the harm to human health.

The UK’s current legal limits for PM2.5 are not as strict as the levels recommended by the WHO. This means that many vulnerable people, including those with existing cardiovascular conditions, are potentially exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.

With the exception of Scotland, the UK limit for PM2.5 is 25 micrograms per cubic metre, over double the WHO recommended level of 10 micrograms. We would like to see the UK Government follow the example set by Scotland and adopt WHO air quality guidelines on particulate matter into national legislation.

You can learn more about air pollution and your heart and how to protect yourself here.

If you would like further information, please email us at [email protected]