The Grapevine

Air Pollution 'Harmful To Health', Linked To Overall Increased Risk Of Death And Heart Disease

Pollution
The more pollution we live around in, the greater the risk of death from all causes, especially heart disease, a new large study has found. Agustín Ruiz, CC BY 2.0

Smog, smoke, and soot may send us to an early grave, a comprehensive study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives has found.

Overlaying two sets of data onto one another, the researchers found a strong correlation between a person’s health and the level of air pollution (specifically particulate matter smaller than 2.5 millimeters) in their neighborhood, such that every increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air of pollution predicted a 3 percent increased risk of death from all causes; an about 10 percent increased risk of death due to heart disease; and a 27 percent increased risk of death from respiratory disease for nonsmokers.

"Our data add to a growing body of evidence that particulate matter is really harmful to health, increasing overall mortality, mostly deaths from cardiovascular disease, as well as deaths from respiratory disease in nonsmokers," said lead study investigator Dr. George Thurston, a health epidemiologist and professor of population health and environmental medicine at NYU Langone, in a statement. "Our study is particularly notable because all the data used in our analysis comes from government and independently held sources."

In particular, Thurston and his colleagues used nine years' worth of data (2000 to 2009) taken from a survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which included 566,000 male and female participants aged 50 to 71 from various states such as California, New Jersey, and Louisiana, among others.

They then estimated the risk of death from air pollution exposure by cross-referencing that data against “information about the amount and type of particulate matter from the Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality System and other databases,” after controlling for variables like age, level of education, smoking history, and other socio-economic factors.

Though other studies have found a similar relationship between air pollution and physical inactivity, itself a risk factor of many chronic illnesses, the authors believe their study is the largest and most extensive of its kind.

The type of pollution they singled out, according to Thurston, includes harmful chemicals such as arsenic, selenium, and mercury. Because of their small size, these fine particles aren’t easily removed from the body and can linger in the lungs and bloodstream of a person.

While the research team has conclusively shown a strong link between air pollution and risk of death, they are further committed to narrowing down which pollutants specifically pose more of a greater threat to human health.

"We need to better inform policymakers about the types and sources of particulate pollution so they know where to focus regulations," said senior study author Dr. Richard B Hayes, also a professor of population health and environmental medicine at NYU Langone. "It is especially important to continue monitoring health risks as national standards for air pollution are strengthened."

Source: Thurston G, Hayes R, et al. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2015.

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