Sian Claire Owen, Medical Journalist for Cardio Debate

Air pollution is deadly; this is common knowledge. In the UK, around 40,000 people die every year because of air pollution, with eight out of 10 deaths caused by heart attack or stroke. And recent analysis commissioned by the Labour Party states that nearly 40 million people in the UK living in areas suffering illegal levels of air pollution, in what is being described as a ‘national public health scandal’ [1]

The link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease is well established, and recent research from The University of Washington, Seattle, US, suggests this relationship could be due to changes in the levels of high density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. [2]

Researchers found that higher exposure to black carbon – an indicator of vehicle pollution – after one year was associated with lower HDL cholesterol levels, and it is this which could increase the risk of cardiovascular events.

The British Heart Foundation released a statement in response to this research. [3] Medical Director, Professor Sir Nilesh Samani says: “There is an urgent need to fund more research that looks into the dangerous effects of air pollution on the cardiovascular system.”

“This is an interesting study […] the effects are small and recent studies have questioned whether lower levels of HDL-cholesterol causes heart disease,” adding however, that air pollution is associated with a wide range of detrimental effects in the body, including increased blood pressure.

“It is still too early to say how these findings fit into the wider picture, but the underlying message is the same: air pollution poses a serious risk to heart health.”

Ultimately, the real solution would be to tackle air pollution in order to reduce or eliminate these health risks in the first place.


  2. Association of air pollution exposures with high density lipoprotein cholesterol and particle number. The multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis. Bell G, Mara S, Greenland S, et al., Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, April 2017.