health hazards of air pollution

Your heart, as well as your lungs, are at risk if you are exposed to air pollution, according to two new research stories. And there's worrying news about the dangers of 'third-hand smoke' (as if second-hand smoke wasn't enough of a danger to health). So here's my round-up of the latest news on the health hazards of air pollution:

  • A team of researchers at Toronto General Hospital studied the effect of exposure to concentrated ambient particles (CAPs) emitted from cars and burning fossil fuels on 25 healthy volunteers. They also did separate experiments on exposure to ozone, and to CAPs and ozone together. A combination of the two pollutants caused concerning changes in heart rhythms. The levels of exposure were carefully calculated to match those typically found in both developed and less developed countries. The researchers conclude that while these heart rhythm changes might not bother a healthy individual, they could have serious implications for those with pre-existing heart disease. They urge doctors to push for pollution reduction for the sake of their heart patients.
  • First-hand smoke is the smoke you breathe in yourself if you are a smoker. Second-hand smoke, you breathe in when you are a non-smoker in a smoky atmosphere (less of that now, with so many public smoking bans in countries around the world). But did you know about third-hand smoke? It is the invisible remains of cigarette smoke that deposits upon carpets, clothing, furniture and other surfaces. A new study from researchers in Israel notes the health hazards of air pollution from third-hand smoke. Nicotine in the third-hand smoke can react with ozone in indoor air (itself a potent pollutant) to form further pollution. Babies crawling on the carpet, people sitting on the sofa or those eating food that's come into contact with third-hand smoke may be exposed to more pollution than they realise. The researchers studied interactions between nicotine and indoor air on a variety of materials similar to those found in typical indoor surfaces. They found the interaction between third-hand smoke nicotine and ozone did indeed produce even more toxic pollutants. So if you are in an environment where third-hand smoke is present, it might pay to be extra-vigilant on cleaning any surfaces it might contaminate.
  • And finally, researchers in Denmark are saying that long-term exposure to even low-level air pollution may increase the risk of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). This is the first time a study has shown that air pollution is linked to development or progression of COPD - so it's important. Dr. Zorana Andersen, team leader, from the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Copenhagen, used data from the Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Study, which covers over 57,000 individuals aged 50 to 64 during 1993 and 1997. They used hospital data to find out who got COPD and addresses where people lived to check out levels of air pollution nearby. A significant link was found between chronic air pollution exposure and the risk of developing COPD. Most notable was that this risk was highest for those with pre-existing asthma and diabetes. And the risk could be even greater because those with mild COPD would likely not have been included as the data came from hospital admissions, which are more usual in severe COPD. The study, of course, justifies further action on air pollution reduction. It also highlights a potential link between asthma, diabetes and COPD.

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Sources: Sivagangabalan G et al The Effect of Air Pollution on Spatial Dispersion of Myocardial Repolarization in Healthy Human Volunteers Journal of the American College of Cardiology Jan 11 201157:198-206

Dubowski et al Thirdhand smoke: heterogeneous oxidation of nicotine and secondary aerosol formation in the indoor environment Environmental Science and Technology

Andersen Z et al Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and long-term exposure to traffic-related air pollution: a cohort study American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 2010