Traffic-Related Air Pollution Associated With Changes In Heart Health

By Shweta Iyer on March 11, 2014 11:55 AM EDT

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The damaging effects of vehicular air pollution on the heart and lungs are well known. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

The damaging effects of vehicular air pollution on the heart and lungs are well known. A new study conducted at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, highlights the specific changes that traffic related air pollution has on the right ventricle of the heart and will help to shed new light on heart diseases resulting from high exposure to air pollution. The findings were published in the American Thoracic Society's American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

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"Although the link between traffic-related air pollution and left ventricular hypertrophy, heart failure, and cardiovascular death is established, the effects of traffic-related air pollution on the right ventricle have not been well studied.  Using exposure to nitrogen dioxide as a surrogate for exposure to traffic-related air pollution, we were able to demonstrate for the first time that higher levels of exposure were associated with greater right ventricular mass and larger right ventricular end-diastolic volume. Greater right ventricular mass is also associated with increased risk for heart failure and cardiovascular death," said lead author of the report, Peter Leary, according to a press release Friday.

The study was conducted on 3,896 volunteers who had no history of cardiovascular disease in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, which is a disease characterized by deposition of fatty material on the inner walls of the arteries. The participants also underwent cardiac MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Using estimated exposure to outdoor oxides of nitrogen at the homes of participants over the year preceding MRI, the authors found that increased exposure to nitrogen dioxide was associated with an approximately 1.0 g (5 percent) increase in right ventricular mass, and a 4.1 mL (3%) increase in right ventricular end-diastolic volume.

The researchers arrived at these statistics after considering factors such as cardiovascular risk factors, left ventricular mass and volume, markers of inflammation, lung disease, and socioeconomic status, which varied among the participants.

The authors realize that a study of this type can have several shortcomings. It is difficult to get accurate estimates of air pollution exposure and there is a possibility that not air pollution per se but something related to air pollution could have caused the outcomes. Because of these and several other reasons, the authors cannot for sure suggest that vehicular air-pollution leads to changes in the right ventricle of the heart, but it is certainly one of the factors.

"The morphologic changes in the right ventricle of the heart that we found with increased exposure to nitrogen dioxide add to the body of evidence supporting a connection between traffic-related air pollution and cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Leary. "The many adverse effects of air pollution on human health support continued efforts to reduce this burden."

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