Air pollution: An invisible threat to your heart

We’ve all spent much of 2020 worried about inhaling invisible virus particles. But the air we breathe contains other unseen particles that also may threaten our health. Air pollution spewed from coal-fired power plants, industrial factories, and motor vehicles contains microscopic particulate matter that can burrow deep inside our lungs.

These particles are less than 2.5 microns in diameter — so tiny that 30 of them sitting side by side are about the same diameter as a strand of human hair. Known as PM2.5, they pass through your lungs into your bloodstream, causing inflammation and another cell-damaging process known as oxidative stress.

“Both of those factors are linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes and also make people more vulnerable to heart rhythm disorders,” says Dr. Francine Laden, professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

A review article published Aug. 1, 2020, in the journal Atherosclerosis that included 18 separate studies documented an association between PM2.5 exposure and early evidence of atherosclerosis, the hallmark of coronary artery disease. And both long- and short-term exposure to air pollution — especially PM2.5 — may trigger irregular heart rhythms, according to a review published online July 22, 2020, by Current Problems in Cardiology.

Room for improvement

While air pollution levels have improved dramatically in recent decades, experts say that stricter regulations on PM2.5 could save lives. The U.S. government’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which were last updated in 2012, set the yearly average acceptable level of PM2.5 at 12 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3). But lowering that to 10 μg/m3 (the recommended annual level set by the World Health Organization) could save more than 143,000 lives over a decade, according to a major Harvard study.

Published July 17, 2020, in Science Advances, the study documents the most comprehensive evidence linking long-term exposure to PM2.5 and premature death. It included 16 years of data from 68.5 million Medicare enrollees — about 97% of Americans ages 65 and older. By matching participants’ ZIP codes with air pollution data gathered throughout the United States, the authors were able to estimate daily PM2.5 exposure levels. They also collected other information about the participants, including body mass index, ethnicity, education and income levels, and when they died. While the researchers didn’t report the causes of death, cardiovascular disease accounts for one of every three deaths in this country.

Avoiding exposure

One way to limit your exposure to air pollution is to avoid exercising outdoors near busy roads or industrial areas. Exercising in green areas — nature preserves, woodland, and even urban parks — may lower your pollution exposure. But don’t worry too much if that’s not a convenient option for you. Getting regular exercise when and where you can should be your first priority. “Most studies show that the positive effects of physical activity outweigh the adverse effects of short-term exposures to air pollution,” says Dr. Laden.

Older people and those with asthma or other lung conditions may want to keep tabs on the local air quality index. This color-coded scale for pollution levels is often reported by local news outlets, but you can also look up the current level in your area at AirNow (, a government website that compiles this information from multiple agencies.

In terms of the greater good, anything you can do to minimize traffic, both on the roads and in the air, will reduce air pollution levels, says Dr. Laden. Walk, ride a bicycle, use carpools, or take public transportation whenever possible. Consider purchasing a hybrid or electric car. Choosing nonpolluting renewable energy (such as solar or wind power) from your local electricity supplier is now an option in many places throughout the country. Advocating for stronger pollution standards — such as stricter controls on power plant emissions and better gas mileage standards for cars — are other productive steps that people could take, Dr. Laden says.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

Acts 4:18-31 And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”     

2 Chronicles 25:19 “You said, ‘Behold, you have defeated Edom.’ And your heart has become proud in boasting. Now stay at home; for why should you provoke trouble so that you, even you, would fall and Judah with you?”

1 Samuel 2:3 “Boast no more so very proudly, Do not let arrogance come out of your mouth; For the LORD is a God of knowledge, And with Him actions are weighed.

Proverbs 11:2 When pride comes, then comes dishonor, But with the humble is wisdom.

Proverbs 16:5 Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD; Assuredly, he will not be unpunished.

Micah 2:3 Therefore thus says the LORD, “Behold, I am planning against this family a calamity From which you cannot remove your necks; And you will not walk haughtily, For it will be an evil time.

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