Sian Claire Owen, medical journalist for Cardio Debate, UK

Much has been made of the detrimental impact that air pollution is having on public health. [1] The link between air pollution and heart disease in particular has come under scrutiny over the past few years, and the recent publication of the comprehensive landmark Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) report confirms the deadly link between air pollution and the cardiovascular system. [2] This has led to the recent announcement from the British Heart Foundation that ‘air pollution poses as big a threat to our health as obesity.’ [3]

Air pollution is known to kill around 40,000 people in the UK every year, and even short-term exposure to these airborne chemicals – black carbon, particulate matter (PM), ultrafine particles and nitrogen dioxide – poses a significant risk to heart health. [4]

The World Health Organisation recently reported that air pollution in the UK has exceeded the threshold for what it considers safe, prompting the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association and the BMJ to collectively call on the UK government to introduce a new Clean Air Bill to clean up their act. [5]

As if the spectre of air pollution is not enough, recent research further confirms that chronic exposure to noise pollution negatively impacts on heart health. A poster presentation at the American Heart Association 2018 suggests that high levels of ‘environmental noise’ (heavy traffic, airport noises, etc) stimulates the amygdala in the brain, which due to its involvement in stress response causes inflammation of the arteries. [6]

In this study, 499 patients with an average age of 56 years, all of whom were free of CVD at baseline, were monitored using PET and CT scans of their brains and blood vessels. Researchers found that those exposed to the highest noise levels experienced higher levels of amygdala activity and subsequently higher levels of inflammation of the arteries.

Further research is needed to fully ascertain this link. However, the researchers urge clinicians to consider air pollution as an independent risk factor for CVD.

Ultimately, people who live in urban environments, where there are both high levels of air and noise pollution, are at higher risk of developing CVD. This is something that must be addressed at government level. There may be a way to deal with these issues, but is there the will?