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Air Pollution Linked to Increased Heart Rate

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WebMD Health News

Nov. 2, 1999 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.) -- A new study shows that high quantities of air pollution particles can increase heartbeat rates in cardiac patients, according to an article in the November issue of American Heart Journal.

Lead researcher C. Arden Pope III, professor of economics at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, says, "This is the first study to link heart rate variability to particulate air pollution."

Pope's collaborators -- cardiac physiologists and pulmonary specialists -- performed 24- to 48-hour ambulatory electrocardiographic (ECG) monitoring of seven individuals with various types of longstanding heart diseases. The monitoring occurred during high air pollution days and during low air pollution days. They discovered increased exposure to air pollution to be associated with "small, but still significant increases in heart rate," Pope reports.

Peter H. Stone, MD, from the cardiovascular division of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, confirmed the importance of the new study in an editorial he co-wrote in the same issue of American Heart Journal. "There are approximately 350,000 sudden cardiac deaths each year in the U.S. alone," Stone tells WebMD, "and it has been estimated that as many as 60,000 deaths are related to particulate air pollution."

According to Stone, inhaled environmental particles may promote an increased stress response in the body, leading to abnormal heart rhythms. The inhaled particles may also cause inflammation of the lungs and narrowing of the airways, thus the increase in the heart rate.

Pope says the changes in heart rate monitored during the study occurred regardless of the person's location. "It doesn't matter whether you are inside or outside. Environmental Protection Agency studies show indoor air is often more polluted than outside air," Pope says.

Steps can be taken to keep the air in your home relatively free from air pollution particles, say authorities. Cardiac patients should consider installing or updating air-conditioning/heating systems with high-efficiency particulate-arresting (HEPA) filters. Other indoor-air pollution protection measures include:

  • Encourage smokers to quit or at least refrain from smoking in the home. Burning tobacco releases large quantities of dangerous particles into the air.
  • Cooking stoves and clothes dryers should be vented to the outdoors. Many stoves have recirculating range hoods that simply recycle the air within the home.
  • Increase home ventilation. Environmental Protection Agency studies show that indoor air is generally more polluted than outside air even in urban areas. Install exhaust fans, particularly in bathrooms. Leave windows and doors open as much as possible to let fresh air blow through.
  • Put several layers of cheesecloth across and under the heating/air conditioning registers to filter out the particulates being blown through into the living areas.
  • Have the vents to the heating or air-conditioning system vacuumed by a professional service. Make sure that during this process they vent to the outside away from the incoming ventilation opening of the home.
  • Vacuum at least twice a week with a modern vacuum cleaner that doesn't vent the particles back into the room. Some vacuum cleaners have mini-HEPA filters attached to the dust collection bag.
  • Use a damp rag rather than a feather duster and a damp mop rather than a dust mop to trap particulates rather than just propel them back into the air.

The researchers say the correlation between heart rate and air pollution was strong eventhough they were limited by the small number of people studied. They say more research needs to be done to look at other potentially harmful components of air pollution.

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