Our successes with air pollution research

The link between air pollution and heart and circulatory diseases

Air pollution takes six months off the average life expectancy in the UK. And around the world, almost 6 out of every 10 deaths from air pollution is associated with heart attack and stroke. We’ve been working to change that.

We fund research to better understand the link between air pollution and poor heart and circulatory health. Our researchers were among the first to show how increased exposure to air pollution damages the cardiovascular system. We also campaign to reduce the amount of air pollution that people are exposed to. Understanding how air pollution is linked to heart attacks, strokes and other health problems will allow us to campaign even more effectively for policies to tackle them.

The link between pollution and death from heart disease was first made in 1952 with 4,000 extra premature deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases during the Great Smog that affected London. Research published in 2001 found a link between being exposed to air polluted with particulate matter and admission to hospital for a heart attack.

Exhaust fumes driving up hospitalisation

A team of our researchers based at the University of Edinburgh has found a link between bad air quality and the number of people hospitalised for heart failure. This research suggests that increased exposure to several different types of air pollution, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, increases the rates of hospital admission and death in people with heart failure.

How does air pollution damage heart health?

It’s one thing to see a link between exposure to air pollution and disease. To fully comprehend the impact of air pollution on heart and vascular health, we need to understand how it causes damage.

In 2005, we funded BHF Professor David Newby and his team at the University of Edinburgh to work with colleagues at Umea University in Sweden to investigate the effects of exposure to air pollution from diesel vehicles on the heart and blood vessels. The team found breathing diesel fumes at the level that would be experienced in a polluted city stops blood vessels relaxing - which is important for controlling blood flow and pressure - and encourages blood to clot. The team also found that exposure for as little as an hour produces longer lasting effects on cardiovascular health - which remained for more than 24 hours after exposure had ended.

Read more about Professor David Newby’s research into air pollution in our blog

Air pollution vs exercise

Exercise is important for a healthy heart and circulatory system. And exercise doesn’t have to mean running a marathon - simply going for a walk can have great health benefits. But can walking in a polluted environment outweigh the benefits of the exercise?

We funded a groundbreaking study by researchers at Imperial College London and Duke University in North Carolina, comparing the benefits of exercising in Oxford Street - one of the busiest, most polluted streets in London - and Hyde Park. The study found that air pollution levels - including fine particulate matter, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide - were much lower in Hyde Park than on Oxford.

Those who walked in the less polluted Hyde Park, saw the stiffness of their arteries reduced, whereas those who walked on Oxford Street had an increase in artery stiffness, which is a risk factor for high blood pressure and coronary heart disease, usually reduced by exercise.

These results suggest poor air quality can cancel out some of the benefits of exercise, and that even short-term exposure to air pollution can have a negative impact on health. The study also suggested that certain medications for heart disease, such as statins, could protect against some of the damage caused by air pollution - as people taking heart medications were slightly protected against the artery stiffening effects of the polluted air.

This research suggests that anyone exercising during times when air pollution is high should avoid the most polluted streets. More importantly though, policy changes are needed to keep the air safe.

Read more about how air pollution can counteract the benefits of exercise.

Air pollution research today

We fund researchers who have made great progress in understanding the link between air pollution and heart and circulatory disease, but there’s still a lot more to do. We continue to fund a team of researchers in Edinburgh to explore these links.

Read more about the air pollution research we're currently funding.