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Science Matters Podcast: Green Hearts

Dr. Wayne Cascio

EPA clean air scientist and cardiologist Dr. Wayne E. Cascio, the Director of EPA's Environmental Public Health Division, talks about the Agency's Green Heart initiative and the importance of clean air to cardiovascular health.

(6.1 MB, 6:45min)

Below are a few highlights of the conversation. 

Science Matters Host, Nathan Gentry: Hi. I’m Nathan Gentry with EPA’s Science Matters podcast, and today we’re talking with cardiologist and EPA air pollution scientist Dr. Wayne Cascio.

Dr. Cascio is also the Director of EPA’s Environmental Public Health Division, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Fellow of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology.

Welcome Dr. Cascio, and thanks for joining us on the Science Matters podcast.

Dr. Cascio: Hi Nathan. Thanks for having me.

Nathan Gentry: My pleasure. I guess the most obvious question is: how did a cardiologist end up doing research for EPA?

Dr. Cascio: That’s a good question; people are often surprised when I tell them that I work for EPA. My training and career as a cardiologist allow me to contribute to Agency research advancing what we know about how exposure to air pollutants affects risks to cardiovascular health, including the function of the heart and blood vessels.

It’s all part of helping the Agency meet its mission to protect human health. As a cardiologist, that’s been the focus of my career: keeping people healthy.

Nathan Gentry: Sounds like a good fit for everyone.

I think most people are intuitively aware of the harm that bad air can have on the lungs—especially things like tobacco smoke and ground-level ozone and other contributors to “air alert” or bad air days—but maybe not so much with the heart health. Do you find that’s true?

Dr. Cascio: Yes. That’s why EPA has recently launched an initiative we are calling “Green Heart,” to help spread the word about the link between air pollution and heart health.

Nathan Gentry: Green Heart? Tell us more.

Dr. Cascio: The goal is to raise awareness of the link between air pollution and cardiovascular health, and share information with doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals, and individuals—especially those most at risk to heart-related health risks—about what actions and decisions people can make to better protect themselves from risks related to air pollution exposure and stay healthy.

Nathan Gentry: There is a general awareness that people can watch their diets, get regular exercise, and stop smoking, but they can’t decide not to breathe. What kinds of things can people do?

Dr. Cascio: Those are all really good points, Nathan.  I would also add maintaining a normal blood pressure and keeping your blood sugar and cholesterol under control. Heart disease is one of the biggest killers and causes of disability out there; in fact, it’s the leading cause of death for American men and women. And as you correctly point out, most of the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease are related to the lifestyle choices you mention.

Research funded by the Gates Foundation outlining major North American disease and disability factors recently published in the medical journal The Lancet found that in North America 19 of the top 20 risk factors are directly related to lifestyle choices. The one that was not related—at number 14 on the list—is exposure to particle air pollution, more commonly known as soot.

Nathan Gentry: So what can we do to protect our health?

Dr. Cascio: That’s where EPA science comes in. Studies by our researchers and others show that improved air quality from the Clean Air Act and other measures leads to healthier and longer lives.

And thanks in large part to that research the Agency recently strengthened the annual health standard for fine particle pollution from 15 to 12 micrograms per cubic meter. That will go a long way to removing some of the most troublesome particulate matter air pollutant out of the air—and  make our air cleaner and healthier.

Nathan Gentry: So there are already things we have done together, as a society, to reduce air pollution and lower risks to cardiovascular health on a broad scale. Are there things that individuals can do for themselves?

Dr. Cascio: Yes! And here, too our research is providing important information. For example, there are steps you can take to reduce your personal exposure to air pollutants. As we’ve already mentioned, one key is not to smoke tobacco yourself, and to avoid the smoke of others.

Second, if you have cardiovascular problems, it’s important for you to keep a close eye on the website for the Air Quality Index (AQI) as part of your daily routine. The index provides information on air quality and how to avoid unhealthy exposures when air pollutants are high. Simple things like limiting or avoiding exercise or heavy work outside during high pollution days are actions you can take to protect your health and your heart.

Another of our recent research findings found that omega-3 fatty acids, the kind you find in fish oil, might protect the cardiovascular system from the harmful effects of fine particulate matter air pollutants.  The cholesterol lowering drugs known as statins have also been shown to blunt the effect of air particle pollution on the heart. If you are at risk to heart trouble, you should ask your doctor about that to see if she or he thinks supplements are a good idea for you.

Nathan Gentry: Keeping an eye on air quality index, limiting your exposure accordingly, and talking to your doctor about the latest research results from EPA cardiologists and other researchers: all things you should do if you are at risk for heart trouble. Sounds like important advice. Anything else you want to add?

Dr. Cascio: That covers the basics. I should also mention that listeners should visit EPA’s Green Heart web site regularly to learn more and keep informed.  Another great resource to learn about air quality in your area today, as well as what you might expect tomorrow is the airnow web site.

Nathan Gentry: Dr. Cascio, thank you so much for sharing your important EPA research with us here on the Science Matters podcast. And thank you for listening. I’m your host, Nathan Gentry, until next time remember that for your heart, and for protecting human health and the environment: EPA Science Matters.