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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

Air Pollution Linked to Heart Problems, Deaths

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"This is one of a series of studies looking at heart rate variability, and probably the most comprehensive one that's been published to date," says Daniel Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute in Boston. "One key question this study doesn't fully answer is whether this should concern those who do not have preexisting heart or lung disease." The Health Effects Institute is a nonprofit organization partially funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Greenbaum is a member of the National Research Council's Committee on Research Priorities for Airborne Particulate Matter.

Additional studies are now under way to explore these issues using a range of methods, with results expected within two years, Greenbaum says. "The EPA has already set a standard for fine particle reduction. It is scheduled to review and possibly change that standard by 2002. After that we will see many efforts to actually reduce air pollution, so at that point, data on what parts of the particle mix are most toxic would be very useful."

Consumers should recognize that pollution control is not merely a matter of economics, Lauer says. "This research provides additional evidence that air pollution is dangerous. People should be concerned about it as a public health issue."

Vital Information:

  • Harvard researchers report everyday air pollution may impair the heart's ability to change the speed at which it beats, or its heart rate variability. This loss of heart rate variability could lead to more heart problems and heart-related deaths.
  • Other studies have demonstrated the link between air pollution and rises in heart attacks and heart-related deaths. But the scientists in this study say this is the first time a team has shown that air pollution hinders the heart's ability to adjust to the pumping demands the body puts on it.
  • A major culprit in air pollution seems to be the fine particles in diesel waste from buses, trucks, and heavy equipment. Doctors still don't know whether those who already have a heart problem are at greater risk.
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