It’s in the air: Air pollution can increase the risk of atherosclerosis, study says
12/27/2019 // Grace Olson // Views

Aside from the lungs, a recent study showed that air pollution affects heart health as well.

Researchers from the University of Buffalo, University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found that exposure to ground-level ozone may damage the arteries and increase the risk of atherosclerosis.

The research and its findings are published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Air pollution is also bad for the heart - study

It is a well-established fact that air pollution has negative effects on all lung-related matters: constant exposure to air pollution may cause difficulty in breathing, inflamed airways, and worsen lung problems, such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. This is due to the presence of ozone, a compound usually found in smoke, which irritates the airways, causing them to constrict and trap the air inside the alveoli within the lungs.

While the effects of ozone on lung health are well-explored, there is little research on its potential effects on arterial health according to the researchers, noting that research on the matter primarily focused only on mortality effects, with  little attempt to investigate the underlying association between long-term exposure to ozone and subclinical vascular diseases.

According to the researchers, they wanted to check if there was a possible link between air pollution and atherosclerosis.

To investigate, the researchers gathered data from 6,619 adults who were enrolled in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. The participants, aged 45 to 84 years old, did not have cardiovascular disease or other conditions at the beginning of the study. The researchers followed up on the participants for 6.5 years and used statistical models to check potential, significant connections between ozone exposure and atherosclerosis. The participants came from six major cities across the U.S., specifically Winstom-Salem (NC), New York City (NY), Baltimore (MD), St. Paul (MN), Chicago (IL), and Los Angeles (CA).


Their findings affirmed that there was a connection between continuous exposure to ozone and the progression of atherosclerosis, with the researchers pointing out that chronic exposure to the compound can hasten the build-up of plaque inside arteries, as well as the thickening of carotid walls. Both of these are signs of arterial injury.

"This may indicate that the association between long-term exposure to ozone and cardiovascular mortality that has been observed in some studies is due to arterial injury and acceleration of atherosclerosis," explained Meng Wang, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Washington. 

However, according to the researchers, while they did find an association between ozone exposure and atherosclerosis, the molecular mechanisms underlying this connection were not yet clear, thus pointing out the need for further research. Understanding this aspect may help scientists and healthcare providers formulate methods and set up protective measures for people who are exposed to air pollution every day, the researchers said. (Related: Protect yourself against the effects air pollution with these 5 micronutrients.)

Want to shield yourself from air pollution?  here are a few habits you can adopt to reduce exposure to ozone:

  • Checking the daily air pollution forecasts in the area.
  • Avoiding going outside if the forecasts are high.
  • Stopping smoking, especially indoors.

It is important to note that air pollution does not only affect people in the cities. The wind carries ozone pollutants into the countryside as well. With this in mind, it becomes clear that air pollution is a huge problem that needs to be quickly addressed. Learn more about air pollution and its effects not only on humans but also on other organisms at

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