Air pollution and your heart

London skyline seen through heavy pollution

Air pollution can make heart and circulatory conditions worse, or even cause new health problems.

But some simple steps can help you stay healthy when pollution levels are high.

What is air pollution?

Air pollution is the name for extremely small particles and gases in the air which can cause harm if you breathe them in.

Polluted air can come from several sources, including people’s houses and industry, as well as motor vehicles such as diesel cars.

How does air pollution affect my heart and circulation?

Research shows that air pollution can affect your heart and circulation by:

  • damaging the inside walls of your blood vessels, causing them to become narrower and harder
  • restricting the movement of your blood vessels, which can increase your blood pressure and add to the strain on your heart
  • making your blood more likely to clot, and
  • affecting the normal electrical functioning of your heart.

These problems can either cause new health conditions or make existing conditions worse, such as:

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How can I protect myself?  

If you have a heart or circulatory condition, or a long-term lung condition, you should avoid spending long periods of time in places where there are high levels of air pollution. This includes roads with busy traffic, or places where air pollution is generated by industry, such as near factories.

If you do need to go to these places, try to avoid times of day when pollution might be higher. This includes going out during ‘rush’ hour, when people are travelling to and from work or taking children to and from school.

Current evidence shows that healthy people, with no history of heart and circulatory disease, have a low risk of having a heart attack or stroke after being exposed to high levels of air pollution.

Checking air pollution levels in your area

If you have a heart or circulatory condition, it’s important to regularly monitor the air pollution level around where you live and work. The Government’s UK-AIR website has a daily pollution forecast. You can search for your postcode and see whether pollution levels are low, moderate, high or very high in your area.

You can also follow the Government's @DefraUKAir Twitter feed, or call their helpline for free on 0800 55 66 77.

And there is local information available for air pollution levels in different parts of the UK: 

Is it safe to exercise outside?

Being physically active is very good for your heart, and for most people the benefits of doing exercise outweigh the risks of breathing in polluted air.

But if you have a heart or circulatory problem, or long-term lung disease, you should reduce the amount of exercise you do outdoors if the air pollution level is moderate, high or very high.

This is because your body needs to take in more air when you are physically active and your heart is working harder, so you’re likely to breathe in more polluted air. There is little evidence to say that using facemasks helps to keep out the harmful air pollution particles.

It is still a good idea to be as active as you can indoors on days when it’s not possible to exercise outside.

Heavy traffic in London

How can air pollution be improved?

Walking or cycling short distances instead of driving can help to decrease air pollution. If you need to drive somewhere, think about sharing a lift with colleagues or a friend.

You can also avoid using diesel motor vehicles, because these cause especially high levels of pollution. If you need to buy or switch your vehicle, you could choose a petrol vehicle or ultra-low emission vehicle (ULEV).

If you own a diesel vehicle, do not remove the diesel particulate filter (DPF) on your exhaust, because it is illegal to modify a vehicle in this way. Make sure the DPF is maintained and regularly emptied, as it helps to protect you and others around you from potentially harmful emissions.

The BHF is working to make sure the Government introduces our air pollution policy recommendations, which aim to reduce the public's health risk from air pollution. 

Find out more

For more information about air pollution you can: