According to a new study, the risk of arrhythmia (or irregular heartbeat) is increased even after comparatively brief exposure to air pollution.
The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal Monday, evaluated how hourly exposure to air pollution across China, an area that has consistent Atrial Fibrillation, Atrial Flutter, Supraventricular Tachycardia, and Premature Beat.
Six air pollutants were evaluated: fine particles, coarse particles, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone.
The team discovered that the risk for arrhythmia was significantly increased within the first 24 hours after exposure to air pollutants.
Atrial flutter, supraventricular tachycardia, and premature beats were most strongly linked to air pollution.
Researchers suspect the associated risk is higher among men, possibly due to more males being exposed outdoors or through work and a higher prevalence of arrhythmia risk factors, such as smoking and drinking alcohol.
These associations were most potent during the colder seasons. This is because lower temperatures can intensify the impact of air pollution on cardiovascular systems.
Researchers also found the strongest association between arrhythmia and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) was the amount of NO2 exposure. The more people are exposed to NO2, the stronger the link.
Dr. Jon Samet, MD, MS, is a pulmonary doctor, epidemiologist, and dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He says the findings align with previous research, which shows air pollution as a significant cause of heart disease morbidity and death.
Much research has been done on the relationship between air pollution and severe heart rhythm disorders, such as in patients who have implanted defibrillators. “Air pollution can affect the heart rhythm variability,” Samet explained.
The effects of air pollution can be seen instantly.
After exposure to air pollution, the risk of arrhythmia increased within a few days. It then decreased after 24 hours.
Though prior studies linking short-term air pollution exposure to arrhythmia have been inconsistent, this new report adds to evidence suggesting that air pollution can damage the cardiovascular and contribute to irregular heartbeats.
Researchers hope their findings will encourage individuals at risk to protect themselves during heavy air pollution.
Dr. Mary Prunicki, MD, Ph.D., is the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma director at Stanford Medicine. She says, “We know that chronic air pollution impacts the heart.”
A well-established link between air pollution and atherosclerosis is plaque buildup in the coronary artery which can affect heart health.
Prunicki, a Healthline reporter, said, “This buildup of calcium could restrict blood flow to your heart and other major vessels — increasing the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes.”
Why air pollution can affect heart rhythm
Researchers are still investigating the cause of this heart rhythm disturbance, but they suspect harmful chemicals in air pollution can cause oxidative stresses and systemic inflammation.
Arrhythmias can be exacerbated by air pollution.
Prunicki says arrhythmia increases the risk of blood clots, strokes, and sudden death.
Samet says that if the arrhythmias persist, they may require emergency treatment.
Prunicki said that although it’s unknown how much air pollution is considered too much, we have seen cardiovascular effects such as increased blood pressure in areas with air pollution levels below the criteria cut-off levels.
It is essential to do more research to understand why air pollution can affect heart health.
This study has provided ample evidence on heart arrhythmias. Samet stated that he would like further studies on how air pollution causes these effects.