Air pollution research

Air pollution and heart health

Air pollution is an invisible but deadly problem. It’s the biggest environmental cause of heart and circulatory disease in the UK, linked with 40,000 premature deaths every year. That’s around 20 times more people than die in car accidents. And globally, almost 6 in 10 deaths related to air pollution are caused by heart attack and stroke.

Air pollution is caused by a lot of different things, for example, in cities car exhaust fumes and dust from cars’ brakes and tyres can all be found in the air. Other types of pollution come from burning fuels, both in industrial settings like factories or power plants or in fires in homes.

Exposure to air pollution has been shown to damage blood vessels, increase the risk of blood clots, which increases the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Different types of pollution affect your body in different ways. You can learn more about air pollution’s impact on your health on our page “Why is air pollution a problem?”.

Dust in the lungs

Very fine dust, known as fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, is made up of particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres across, and comes from a variety of sources, including heavy industry and road traffic.

We’ve funded research that has found strong evidence of a link between exposure to PM2.5 and poor cardiovascular health. Short-term exposure to high levels of particulate matter has been linked with an increase in the risk of heart attacks, within a few hours to one day after exposure.

Going for gold

How does air pollution end up affecting our heart and blood vessels? For example, do inhaled pollutants enter the bloodstream to cause damage? It’s not currently possible to reliably detect small particles from exhaust fumes in blood. To work around this problem, a team of researchers at the University of Edinburgh led by Dr Mark Miller and BHF Professor David Newby asked healthy volunteers to breathe in harmless gold nanoparticles the same size as particles created by diesel vehicles. The team found that gold had moved from the lungs into the volunteers’ blood and urine 24 hours after exposure. Some gold could even be detected in the blood up to three months after exposure. The research team also looked at where the nanoparticles build up around the body, and found that nanoparticles built up in the fatty plaques of diseased arteries.

With BHF funding, Dr Miller is continuing his research into pollutant nanoparticles, working out whether a group of fats made in the body, called eicosanoids, could contribute to the particles’ harmful effects on our heart and blood vessels. He will measure eicosanoid levels in cells exposed to nanoparticles, asking if eicosanoid levels can be used to predict the damage nanoparticles cause in people. His team will also identify new biomarkers that flag nanoparticle exposure and toxicity.

Clearing the air

Research at the University of Edinburgh will help us better understand how air pollution damages heart health. But we already know the best way to reduce this damage is to reduce the amount of pollution in the air. We’ve called on the UK Government to create a new Clean Air Act - to bring the legal air quality targets for Britain in line with those recommended by the World Health Organisation. There are things individuals can do to reduce their exposure to air pollution, like avoiding the most polluted areas. But ultimately, we need government action to improve air quality in the first place - rather than relying on individuals to change their lifestyle in order to avoid toxic air.

You can read more about the steps we would like the Government to take to tackle the air pollution crisis in our air pollution policy briefing.

Read more about our past research into air pollution and heart and circulatory health.