Exposure to the UK government’s recommended levels of air pollution could be causing ‘significant’ changes to the structure of the heart, similar to those seen in the early stages of heart failure.
The stark findings were made following a study by the British Heart Foundation and Queen Mary University of London which looked into the effects that air pollution was having on heart health.
A team of scientists led by Professor Steffen Petersen studied data from 4,000 participants in the UK Biobank study. Each person provided a range of information about themselves including their personal lifestyles, where they lived, health records etc.
Having removed those with existing heart conditions the team then set about conducting MRI scans of each person’s heart at different intervals.
The results found that even though most of the participants lived outside of major UK cities there was a clear correlation between those that lived near loud, busy roads and so were exposed to higher quantities of Nitrogen Dioxide, PM 2.5 (small particles found in the air) and an increase in the size of the right and left ventricles of the heart.
It should be pointed out that while these people were healthy and had no symptoms, these changes are similar to the early signs of heart disease.
In fact the study found that for every 1 extra µg per cubic metre of PM 2.5 and for every 10 extra µg per cubic metre of NO2, the heart increased in size by approximately 1%.
What’s perhaps more worrying is that many of the participants from the study were exposed to levels of PM2.5 pollution that actually fall well within the UK’s own guidelines 25µg per cubic metre. Interestingly the participants NO2 exposure was considerably higher and on average was either on the same level or higher than the UK and the World Health Organisation’s acceptable limit of 40µg per cubic metre.
The government already plans to halve the number of people living in areas that are over the WHO air pollution guidelines by 2025, but the British Heart Foundation believe that the acceptable limits should be even lower.
“We can’t expect people to move home to avoid air pollution – Government and public bodies must be acting right now to make all areas safe and protect the population from these harms,” said Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation.
The British Heart Foundation is hoping that these new findings can force the Government to rethink its draft Clean Air Strategy which is currently in consultation until the 14 August.
The next step for Professor Steffen Petersen and his team at Queen Mary University of London is to start including major cities like London and Manchester into their findings with the hope of gaining an even clearer understanding of how air pollution is affecting heart health.
Air pollution is now the largest environmental risk factor linked to deaths. In fact World Health Organisation figures from 2016 reveal that a staggering 92% of the world’s population are living in areas that exceed its own guidelines on air quality.