Landmark report reveals extent of air pollution damage to the heart and circulatory system

30 October 2018        

Category: Research

Particles in air pollution cause a wide range of damaging effects to the cardiovascular system, according to a landmark report published last week.

Hazy London Skyline 

The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) report found that air pollution can cause damage to the cardiovascular system in the following ways:

  • increasing blood pressure
  • making the blood more likely to clot
  • the build-up of fatty materials inside the arteries, reducing the space through which blood can flow – also known as atherosclerosis
  • altering the heart’s normal electrical rhythm – also referred to as arrhythmias
  • causing inflammatory effects on the cardiovascular system – or systemic inflammation

The report marks the most comprehensive review to date and examines the studies conducted over the past decade on the potential biological mechanisms by which exposure to air pollution results in adverse cardiovascular health effects.

In this new report, COMEAP found clear evidence that exposure to small particles of air pollution has a wide range of effects on the cardiovascular system, including irregular heartbeat and blood clots. The COMEAP report also provides recommendations where new research is needed to get a more precise understanding of the impact of air pollution on cardiovascular health.

It follows the publication of a COMEAP report in July this year, which estimated that long-term exposure to the air pollution mixture in the UK contributes to between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths every year. The WHO also estimate that almost six in ten deaths related to outdoor air pollution being caused by a heart attack or stroke.

We are contributing funding to COMEAP’s work on cardiovascular disease. The alarming findings highlight the urgent need for government action to prevent thousands of premature deaths every year.

Adopting more stringent WHO air quality guidelines into UK law is a crucial step in protecting the nation’s heart health. Having these targets in law will help to ensure that action to reduce air pollution will be effective in reducing the risk to people currently living with cardiovascular disease.

Discussing the findings, Professor Frank Kelly, chair of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, said: ‘This review found several possible mechanisms which may explain how particulate air pollution contributes to cardiovascular disease and brings into sharp perspective the impact of ambient pollution on public health.’

The BHF's view

Our chief executive, Simon Gillespie, said:

“This thorough report gives us a clear view of the damaging impact air pollution has on our heart and circulatory system. While there are steps that people can take to reduce their exposure to air pollution we can’t expect people to move house to avoid air pollution - Government and public bodies must be acting right now to make all areas safe and protect people from these harms.

“We were reassured to see that the Government’s draft clean air strategy had a focus on health, but we need a commitment to WHO guideline limits for particulate air pollution in UK law to drive action to better protect the nation from the damage to health caused by air pollution.

“Having these targets in law will also help to improve the lives of those currently living with heart and circulatory diseases, as we know they are particularly affected by air pollution.”

Click here to read the COMEAP’s report.