By Sara Edwards, Student Services Contractor for Communications, EPA’s Office of Research and Development
The EPA highlighted new research findings on the impacts of air quality on cardiovascular health in a webinar, “Air Quality and Healthy Hearts: Progress and Remaining Challenges,” on May 28th, 2020. The webinar addressed public health officials, cardiologists and other medical professionals interested in learning more about the effects of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure on their patients and communities.
Exposure to PM2.5, also known as soot, is associated with premature death in people with heart or lung disease. While PM2.5 levels have decreased along with associated cardiovascular health impacts in recent decades, some people remain more vulnerable than others, like those with pre-existing conditions or lower socioeconomic status.
In order to protect those most vulnerable, public health professionals and policymakers need a better understanding of the relationship between air pollution and cardiovascular health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air and Energy National Research Program is working to assess the impact and improve understanding of air pollution morbidity and mortality in vulnerable populations.
During the May 28 webinar, EPA scientists summarized the current understanding of the cardiovascular effects of exposure to PM2.5 and presented an overview of four recently published studies providing new insights into the results of efforts to improve air quality and protect public health. The new research also identifies remaining environmental health challenges, such as determining the health risks from sustained exposure to elevated PM2.5 from wildfire smoke, an issue of growing concern with more frequent and larger wildfires in the United States.
The featured studies were:
- A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives that found reductions in ambient concentrations of PM2.5 have contributed to reductions in cardiovascular mortality across the U.S. Since 1990, cardiovascular mortality has decreased dramatically due primarily to lifestyle changes and improved healthcare. This study suggests that 5.7% of this decline was related to the reduction in ambient PM2.5 concentrations.
- A study in Environment International that examined the relationship between air quality improvements and changes in cardiovascular mortality rates between 1990-2010 across communities with different socioeconomic characteristics. The study’s authors found that, while PM2.5-related cardiovascular mortality decreased overall, communities with the lowest socioeconomic status experienced the smallest change in cardiovascular mortality over time.
- A study in Journal of the American Heart Association focused on the effects of long-term air pollution exposure on heart failure patients, an understudied population. The results suggest that elevated PM2.5 exposures, even at concentrations below national standards, lead to a significant mortality risk in these individuals. The authors add that a better understanding of environmental risks and mitigating PM2.5 exposure can lead to substantial benefits for heart failure patients.
- Another study in Journal of the American Heart Association that examined the link between wildfire smoke and cardiovascular health. The study’s authors investigated wildfire smoke exposure during the 2015-2017 California wildfires and found it was associated with increased risk of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, with greater impacts seen in lower socioeconomic communities. These results underscore the importance of counseling patients to reduce their potential exposure to wildfire smoke, especially in wildfire-prone areas and among sensitive populations.
With these new observations, health researchers and practitioners alike can better approach the needs of those in our population most vulnerable to cardiovascular events related to PM2.5.
Additional information about cardiovascular health and air pollution for health professionals can be found at EPA’s Healthy Heart Toolkit and Research page.