Traffic Pollution May Hike Heart Disease Risk, Research Shows

cars line up against a detour...
cars line up against a detour...


By Amir Khan

Long-term exposure to fine particle matter from traffic pollution may raise your risk for heart disease, according to preliminary research presented Thursday at the EuroPRevent 2013 meeting in Rome.

Fine particle matter (PM) is a type of pollution characterized by particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller - approximately 1/100th of the width of a human hair. When inhaled, these particles can have serious health effects, said David Rich, ScD, associate professor of public health at the University of Rochester.

"What makes these particles special is that unlike larger particles that get stuck in the upper airway, they can make their way down into the deeper recesses in the lungs," he said. "From there, whatever chemicals are glommed on to the particle can cause a variety of illnesses"

Researchers looked at 4,238 people who lived near major roadways in Germany over a five year span. They found that as the amount of fine particle volume the study participants were exposed to increased, their rate of atherosclerosis increased by as much as 20 percent. In addition, for every 300 feet (100 meters) the study participants lived closer to a roadway, their risk for atherosclerosis increased by 10 percent.

Previous research has linked traffic noise to heart disease. Thursday's results, if confirmed, would offer another reason to steer clear of traffic.

"These two major types of traffic emissions help explain the observed associations between living close to high traffic and subclinical atherosclerosis," Hagen Kälsch MD, lead researcher from the West-German Heart Center, said in a statement. "The considerable size of the associations underscores the importance of long-term exposure to air pollution and road traffic noise as risk factors for atherosclerosis."

Fine particle matter and traffic noise raise the risk for heart disease and atherosclerosis by causing an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system, which regulates blood pressure, glucose levels and blood lipid level, the researchers suggested. In addition, people who live near major roadways often report less sleep, the researchers said, which could also raise your risk for heart disease.

Traffic noise and pollution have also been linked to other heart and respiratory conditions, Dr. Rich said.

"They have been linked to heart attack, stroke, arrhythmia and all kinds of respiratory problems, such as asthma," Rich said. "It's also been linked to mortality as well."

He added that for people who live near a roadway, it's important to minimize your exposure to pollutants in any way possible.

"If you live in a place where you're constantly being exposed to a pollutant, being away from cars is important," he said. "You also need to make sure you filter your air."

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