Health effects of air pollution

Clean air is vital for those with heart conditions

12 March 2020
3 min read

Clean air is good for everyone, but Jacob West, Executive Director of Healthcare Innovation at the British Heart Foundation, explores why it's especially important for those with heart conditions.

Jacob West
Executive Director of Healthcare Innovation, British Heart Foundation

Air pollution may bring sooty car fumes, smoky chimneys and deadly smogs to mind, but the truth is that toxic air is all around us, even when we can’t see it.

The harmful effects of minuscule particles like PM2.5 can have lasting consequences. They can increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke – conditions that can be fatal. Up to 11,000 heart and circulatory disease deaths each year are attributable to air pollution in the UK.

In addition, research on air pollution has shown it can worsen existing heart and circulatory conditions, such as symptoms of angina, heart failure, atrial fibrillation and others. Cleaner air isn’t just a nice thing to have – it is vital to help people live healthier and longer lives.

With climate change high on the political agenda, the timing has never been better to clean up our dirty air. The British Heart Foundation is raising awareness of the harmful health effects of air pollution and demanding change.


Learning about how pollution affects us is key to driving change

Finding out exactly how toxic air affects us when we step outside is crucial to driving change and cleaning up our air. That’s why the BHF has funded £5.8million of air pollution research.

Take the work of Dr Mark Miller and BHF Professor David Newby, as an example. Their team of researchers at the University of Edinburgh carried out a study asking healthy volunteers to breathe in harmless gold nanoparticles. These nanoparticles were designed to mimic the smallest particles created by diesel exhaust fumes.

They found that the gold moved from the lungs into the volunteers’ blood and urine within just 24 hours and could even be detected in the blood three months after exposure. Not only that, but the area where the nanoparticles built up was within the fatty plaques of diseased arteries in people at high risk of stroke.

Cleaner air isn’t just a nice thing to have – it is vital to help people live healthier and longer lives.

Jacob West Executive Director of Healthcare Innovation at the British Heart Foundation

We know that PM2.5 can have a damaging effect on our health, but BHF-funded research is also looking at another group of chemicals. Dr Holly Shiels at the University of Manchester is studying air pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs). PAHs are produced when we burn fuels like coal, petrol or diesel, or even tobacco.

Dr Shiels has previously used fish heart cells to show that PAHs affect the function of molecules controlling how calcium ions move within the heart. This can alter the heart’s normal electrical rhythm and its ability to effectively pump blood. 

Most studies of the effects of PAHs so far have focused on a substance called phenanthrene. However, there is more work to be done to explore how other PAHs may contribute to heart and circulatory diseases.


What can we do about toxic air?

Research is crucial, but results can take time. Urgent action is also necessary if we’re to reduce air pollution levels over the next decade.

It starts with the Government. Currently, the UK’s legal air quality limits on air pollution don’t go far enough. We currently subscribe to EU legal limits, but these are far less stringent than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines, which many parts of the UK do not currently meet.

We want the Government to update our air quality laws and make the WHO guidelines legally binding. However, this won’t be enough on its own.

Across the country, air pollution levels must be reduced to within the WHO guidelines by the end of 2030. This will help protect people’s health for generations to come. Urgent action is now vital to help everyone breathe cleaner air and protect the nation’s health.