‘Clear association’ between air pollution and heart structure

Researchers have found that people exposed to air pollution levels ‘well within’ UK legal limits have changes in the structure of the heart, similar to those seen in the early stages of heart failure.

The study, led by Professor Steffen Petersen of Queen Mary University London, was part-funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and published in the journal Circulation. Researchers from the University of Oxford also took part in the study.

As part of the work, the team looked at data from around 4,000 participants in the UK Biobank study, where volunteers provided a range of personal information, including their lifestyles, health record and details on where they have lived.

Participants also had blood tests and health scans, and heart MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) was used to measure the size, weight and function of the participants’ hearts at fixed times.

According to the findings of the study, researchers identified a ‘clear association’ between those who lived near busy roads, and were exposed to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) or PM2.5 and the development of larger right and left ventricles in the heart.


Higher exposures to the pollutants were linked to more significant changes in the structure of the heart. For every one extra µg per cubic metre of PM2.5 and for every 10 extra µg per cubic metre of NO2, the heart enlarges by approximately 1%, the study suggested.

Dr Nay Aung who led the data analysis from Queen Mary’s William Harvey Research Institute said: “Although our study was observational and hasn’t yet shown a causal link, we saw significant changes in the heart, even at relatively low levels of air pollution exposure. Our future studies will include data from those living in inner cities like Central Manchester and London, using more in-depth measurements of heart function, and we would expect the findings to be even more pronounced and clinically important.

“Air pollution should be seen as a modifiable risk factor. Doctors and the general public all need to be aware of their exposure when they think about their heart health, just like they think about their blood pressure, their cholesterol and their weight.”

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the BHF said: “We can’t expect people to move home to avoid air pollution — Government and public bodies must be acting right now to make all areas safe and protect the population from these harms.

“What is particularly worrying is that the levels of air pollution, particularly PM2.5, at which this study saw people with heart remodelling are not even deemed particularly high by the UK Government — this is why we are calling for the WHO guidelines to be adopted.”


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