Getting to the heart of air pollution

Air pollution on motorway In this blog Chloe Watson, Policy Manager in our Policy & Public Affairs team, explores how research is improving our understanding of air pollution and heart disease, and explains how we are turning this understanding into action.

Since the notorious smogs of the 1950s, it’s been observed that high levels of air pollution are damaging to our heart health. While the link in principle is well established, there is still much that we do not fully understand about this issue, including the precise scale of the problem and the ways in which air pollution damages the heart and circulation.

This is clearly an issue of pressing importance for people with heart disease who need to know more about the risks they face and what they can do to avoid them.

Researching air pollution effects

Since 2010 we have funded over £7 million of medical research into the link between exposure to air pollution and cardiovascular health.

This research has shown that both short and long term exposure to air pollution can cause or worsen existing cardiovascular conditions. In particular, work by BHF Professor David Newby and his team at the University of Edinburgh has been pivotal in demonstrating the link between air pollution and heart attack, angina, heart failure and, more recently, stroke.

At Edinburgh their research has focused on looking at how the tiny particles in diesel and petrol engine exhaust fumes can increase the risk of the dangerous blood clots that cause heart attacks and strokes.

A professor smiling in a white lab coatProfessor Newby explains, “In the 1950s, when there was a lot of smog, the problem used to be that particles were big and they stuck in the upper airways. Now these nanoparticles go straight past, deep into the lungs, even into the bloodstream. We have a clear link between air pollution levels and heart attacks, and we believe the particles in the air are the cause of this.”

Despite the increasingly high volume of research available on the health effects of air pollution, much of which has come from BHF-funded research, there is a clear need for good quality evidence reviews. To help meet that need, the BHF is contributing funding to the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants to assist its work to assess the evidence linking long-term exposure to air pollutants with cardiovascular illness.

Informing patients and the public of the risks

While the connection between air pollution and breathing conditions is relatively intuitive, it is often less obvious to the public that high air pollution levels could be bad for their heart and circulatory system. A survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the BHF in 2015 showed that fewer than half of those polled thought that air pollution was harmful to heart health and only 17 per cent thought there was a link to stroke.

We believe that it is vital that the public, and in particular heart patients who are especially vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution, understand their risks and know what steps they can take to protect themselves. We have produced a factsheet aimed at heart patients explaining the issue and we also tweet when there are particularly high levels of air pollution.

Download the BHF’s information sheet on air pollution and heart health

Turning knowledge into action

Driven by their research findings Professor Newby recognises the urgent need to act on air pollution. High risk groups particularly feel the effects. “People with heart failure are a vulnerable group and, when the air quality falls, more of them are admitted to hospital.”

Donations we’ve received from the general public fund potentially life saving research and it’s our responsibility to make sure that the money is well spent. But it’s not enough to just learn more about air pollution — we need to make sure that this knowledge is translated into action.

Although there are steps that individuals can take to reduce their exposure to air pollution, this is clearly an issue which goes beyond individual choice. When the air that we breathe is harming our health, the need for Government action becomes clear.

We are a member of the Healthy Air Campaign

The findings of our research informed the BHF Policy and Public Affairs team’s decision to make air pollution a key priority for us. We are working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to look at how the UK can reduce air pollution levels and start to meet the international limits which we are currently breaching. We are also a member of the Healthy Air Campaign, a coalition of health and environmental organisations working towards safer, healthier UK air.

The wider impact of research

Ongoing medical research is vital to help us understand what causes heart disease, how to prevent it and how to treat it.The more our researchers understand about the links between pollution and cardiovascular illness, the more effectively we can work with Government and the general public to improve our environment and, ultimately, to save lives.

The research that we fund has far reaching implications and has been impactful in not only highlighting key issues on heart health but also generating momentum on public policy initiatives.

But despite how far we’ve come, there is still work to do — Professor Newby stresses: “We can’t afford to be complacent.”

Find out more about the impact of air pollution on heart health.

Read our blog: How cardiac rehab saved me