Harvard Heart Letter

Air pollution and heart disease


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Ask the doctor

Q. I live near a busy highway. Are there any heart risks from air pollution?

A. Yes. More than two decades of research has shown that air pollution can trigger heart attacks, strokes, and irregular heart rhythms, particularly in people who have or are at risk for heart disease. The most dangerous pollutants appear to be very tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which the Environmental Protection Agency reports as PM2.5. These particles come from car and truck exhaust, power plants and other industrial sources, wildfires, and wood-burning stoves.

Because they're so tiny, these particles are able to lodge deep in the lungs, where they irritate lung tissue. This inflammation then seems to spill out into the bloodstream and damages blood vessels, potentially contributing to cardiovascular problems.

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