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How Can You Protect Your Heart from Air Pollution?

Published February 7, 2018, Updated December 21, 2018

People with diagnosed heart disease are more vulnerable to air pollutants. Studies have shown that short-term exposures to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) can trigger heart attack, ischemic stroke, abnormal heart rhythms, and worsen heart failure in individuals with cardiovascular disease or older adults with medical conditions that put them at risk.

A stethoscope around a toy heart on top of charts

But what can people do to protect themselves from air pollution? You can check the current Air Quality Index (AQI) and obtain air quality forecasts on the AirNow web pageExit to learn when air pollution may be a health concern and how to avoid its damaging effects. EPA researchers are studying what other actions people can take to reduce the effects of air pollution.

“For more than four decades, EPA researchers have provided a large body of scientific evidence on the health effects of air pollutants,” says Wayne Cascio, EPA director and cardiologist. “Building on this work, studies are being conducted to investigate and develop new intervention strategies that people can use to protect heart health, if they are at risk.”

The research ranges from studying whether eating certain foods or taking supplements might protect against the onslaught of air pollution to testing innovative technologies that can be used to teach people about potential risks. For example, initial studies, including those by EPA researchers, suggest that dietary supplements or medications with antioxidant or anti-inflammatory properties, such as fish oil and olive oil, have the potential to provide at least partial protection against short-term exposures to air particle pollution induced health effects in individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

These studies suggest that diet and supplementation should be further examined as  possible interventions to protect against adverse vascular effects of air pollution exposure, so researchers are examining what other nutritional supplements (or foods containing those nutrients) or over-the-counter pharmaceuticals may also prove effective, as well as what the optimal dosages may be.  Researchers are also conducting additional studies to determine whether people who routinely consume fish containing omega-3 fatty acids are more protected from the harmful effects of air pollution than those who consume very little fish.

 “The potential to realize tangible public health benefits from these studies is significant, which is both rewarding and motivating” says EPA scientist James Samet, one of the lead scientists for these studies.

Awareness of the health risks associated with air pollution might even be available with a wearable air monitor. Advances in technology have allowed air sensors to become miniaturized and wearable, making it possible for individuals to learn about their personal air quality on-the-go. These tiny monitors can be used to alert users of high levels of common air pollutants that they may encounter during daily activities. An EPA study is under way to determine if people wearing air sensors avoid high concentrations of PM2.5 by choosing to limit activity on days of bad air quality, and if the avoidance leads to less cardiovascular changes that occur from PM2.5 exposures. The research will determine whether the use of a wearable monitor contributes to people avoiding pollution and improving their health.

Another technology being tested is the Smoke Sense smart phone app developed by EPA researchers that enables citizen scientists to get information on air quality and learn how to protect their health from wildland fire smoke.  Exposure to wildland fire smoke increases visits to emergency rooms and clinics for problems related to asthma and other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Data gathered through Smoke Sense may help EPA researchers and communities determine how smoke from fires impacts public health, and might help people make better decisions about avoiding smoke to protect their health.

This new area of research to develop intervention strategies is designed to help individuals learn what they can do to reduce the health effects of exposure to environmental agents, such as air pollution. When the research is completed we might find that simple adjustments to diet or watching air quality forecasts and adjusting outdoor activities to avoid exposures to high levels of air particle pollution can be beneficial in protecting your health from harmful air pollution.

Be smart and take action to protect your heart! Learn more on EPA’s Healthy Heart web page and at Million HeartsExit, the joint initiative of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes in the U.S. in the next five years.