Air pollution and your heart

London skyline seen through heavy pollution

Air pollution is harmful to your heart and circulation.

You can take simple steps to help you stay as healthy as possible 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. These include:

  • gases such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide
  • particulate matter (PM), made up of solid and liquid particles such as soot and dust

Polluted air can come from several sources, such as domestic wood burning and cars, particularly diesel exhaust fumes, as well as industry. 

How does air pollution affect my heart and circulation?

Air pollution can be harmful. Our research shows that it 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
  • affecting the normal electrical functioning of your heart which could cause abnormal heart rhythms 
  • causing small changes to the structure of the heart like those that are seen in the early stages of heart failure.

This damage can contribute to the development of new health problems, or put people with existing heart and circulatory conditions at increased risk of events like a heart attack or stroke.

It’s estimated that poor air quality is responsible for up to 36,000 deaths per year in the UK, with a significant impact on heart and circulatory health. The majority of UK deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution are from heart disease and stroke.

Can I protect myself from air pollution?

Some research has suggested that eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables could help protect you from the negative impacts of air pollution. Being physically active could also help, and it’s a good idea to check the air pollution levels in your area. Try walking or cycling where possible and avoid highly polluted areas, particularly if you have an existing health condition.

Some people choose to wear a mouth mask to protect against the effects of air pollution but there is little evidence to say if they are effective. 

If I have a heart or circulatory condition, do I need to do more to protect myself? 

If you have an existing heart or circulatory condition, check with your GP or health care specialist about reducing your exposure to air pollution, as we do know that air pollution can make certain conditions worse.

It’s recommended that you 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.

There are other ways you can protect yourself from air pollution:

  • choose routes away from traffic and walk as far from the road as possible
  • use segregated cycle lanes if possible.

Is it safe to exercise outside in polluted air?

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

But if you have a heart or circulatory condition, 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. 

It’s still a good idea to be as active as you can indoors on days when it’s not possible to exercise outside. Try our living room workout next time you exercise indoors or get more tips on being active.

Heavy traffic in London

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.

There's also local information available for air pollution levels in different parts of the UK: 

How can air pollution be improved?

We would like to see improvements in the quality of air we breathe. We’re working to make sure the Government takes action to reduce the public's health risk from air pollution. 

While we know that the Government is focussing on air pollution as a health issue, we would like them to take this further with bold and ambitious action. This starts with adopting tighter legal limits for health-harmful pollutants, in line with the limits recommended by the World Health Organization.

Our policy page has more information about our recommendations and the work we are doing in this space.

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