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Air Quality Matters: Care About Your Heart Health? Then You Need to Understand *This* Risk Factor

Editor’s Note: February may be the shortest month, but it is full of national public health awareness initiatives – it’s Heart Health Month, Care for Your Indoor Air Month, and National Cancer Prevention Awareness Month. This is the first in our three-part Air Quality Matters series, where we will explore the ways in which air pollution could be impacting your life and health through the filter of those awareness campaigns. 

When you think about what it takes to keep your heart healthy, many things might come to mind: Staying active, eating clean, and making sure you get regular checkups to ensure your blood pressure, A1C, and cholesterol numbers are looking good.

But did you ever consider that the air you breathe could be negatively impacting your heart health? If you haven’t, we thought that now was the perfect time to put it on your radar – February *is* national Heart Health Month, after all.

While many may associate air pollution primarily with respiratory ailments, a burgeoning body of medical evidence and scientific studies show a direct link between cardiovascular disease and long term exposure to air pollution. And considering our ongoing struggle with subpar air quality locally and the prevalence of cardiovascular disease regionally and nationally, we thought it’s an issue worth understanding.

How prevalent is it? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 800,000 people die each year from cardiovascular disease. Here in Pennsylvania, about 667,000 people are diagnosed each year.

Do an internet search for “cardiovascular health and air pollution” and numerous headlines will emerge – none of them good news.

One reads, “Air pollution linked to dementia and cardiovascular disease.” Another warns, High blood pressure? It could be in the air!” Yet another screams, “Air Pollution Tied to Stroke, Cognitive Slide.”

Here’s how the EPA explains it: People with longtime exposure to elevated concentrations of particulate matter and nitrogen nitrates in the air are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease because those pollutants prematurely age blood vessels and contribute to a more rapid buildup of plaque in the coronary artery. That buildup then restricts blood flow to the heart and other major blood vessels, increasing the chance of stroke and heart attack.

“This emerging research is of particular concern to us because we know that particle pollution kills Americans by the thousands each year, even in places that are meeting the current standards,” Group Against Smog and Pollution Executive Director Rachel Filippini said.

And it’s a particular concern here in Allegheny County, she said.

“Pittsburgh ranks as one of the top most-polluted cities in the nation in regard to year-round particle pollution. From 2016-2018, three regional air monitors in Pittsburgh registered PM 2.5 concentrations higher than 90 percent of the U.S.,” Filippini explained. 

It’s worth noting that Southwestern Pennsylvania is home to the largest coke-making facility in the nation, numerous coal-fired power plants, and thousands of diesel vehicles and equipment – all contributing fine particle pollution into the air we breathe.

“Recent studies have also shown us that the folks who deal with the highest levels of particle and other types of air pollution are the same folks who live in socio-economically disadvantaged and/or mostly minority neighborhoods,” she said. “The link between air pollution and heart health isn’t just a public health issue, it’s also a social justice issue.”

But it isn’t just particle pollution that people need to be concerned about.  A study led by the University of Buffalo found that long-term exposure to ground-level ozone may speed up the development of arterial disease such as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a clogging of the arteries with fatty ‘plaque’ which restricts blood flow and often preludes heart attacks and strokes. 

Ground-level ozone is created by chemical reactions occurring between nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This happens when sunlight chemically reacts with pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, refineries, and chemical plants.  

Ozone is most prevalent – and most likely to reach unhealthy levels – during the warm-weather months.

So what can you do to protect yourself and your neighbors? We have a couple of suggestions:

  • Educate yourself on the sources of air pollution in your neighborhood and region, bookmark the Allegheny County Health Department webpage dedicated to air quality data as well as AirNow.gov, a federal website that tracks and shares air quality from EPA monitors located across the county.
  • Reduce your exposure to particle pollution and ozone. Check the Air Quality Index each day and if you’re able, limit your time outdoors when concentrations of PM2.5 and/or ozone are expected to peak. 
  • Advocate for stronger coke oven regulations. Right now, the Allegheny County Health Department is mulling new coke oven regulations. While the public comment period just ended, the fight for stronger coke oven regs is far from over. 
  • Contact your elected officials. It’s a cliche, but it’s true: The squeaky wheel gets the oil. Let your elected officials know that air pollution is an important public health issue that needs to be prioritized. We’re talking municipal and county council officials, your representatives and senators at both the state and federal levels, and if you’re an Allegheny County resident, Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
  • Talk to your doctor about your concerns about air pollution and what you can do to protect your heart health.  Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s Healthy Heart Program for additional research and educational materials — https://www.epa.gov/air-research/healthy-heart-toolkit-and-research 
  • Join GASP to fight for clean air right alongside us.

Check back tomorrow for the second installment of our Air Quality Matters series.

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