Green Heart: Will you be mine?

By Aaron Ferster

As a husband and the father of two girls, I am a big fan of Valentine’s Day. The cards. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. Flowers. Maybe even an evening glass of bubbly (or two) once the kids are in bed.  Looking around the crowded metro car on my way to work this morning, it was obvious I’m not the only one. More than a few folks were carrying bouquets, or boxes filled with velvet-icing-topped cupcakes. And everyone was wearing red.

It’s no wonder that public health organizations across the country have picked February—the month marked by Valentine’s Day—to make wearing red a reminder of the importance of heart health. American Heart Month is a call to action to raise awareness about what we all can do to prevent heart disease, the country’s number one cause of death for men and women.

There is a growing awareness of several simple, important steps we can take in that regard: don’t smoke, get regular exercise, and watch our diets.

EPA researchers and their partners have illuminated links between environmental factors, specifically air pollution, and heart disease. Theirs’ and others’ studies show that exposure to air pollution can trigger heart attacks and strokes, especially for those people with cardiovascular disease.

To help spread the word about these findings and actions people can take to lower their health risks, EPA recently launched the Green Heart initiative.  For example, one important action is to regularly check the Air Quality Index (AQI) forecast for your community. AQI is EPA’s color-coded tool for showing air quality, illustrating how clean or polluted your local air is. It also provides recommendations for steps to reduce your exposure, such as:

  • If you  have heart disease, are an older adult, or have other risk factors for heart disease, take steps to reduce your exposure when the AQI forecast is at code orange or above. These can include reducing your activity level (for example, walk instead of jog), exercising indoors, or postponing your workout or other activity for when the air quality is better.
  • Avoid exercising near busy roads if possible. (This is always a good idea.)
  • And most critical, if you feel symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, stop and seek medical help immediately!

While the Agency, states and tribes are taking actions to reduce air pollution by moving ahead with stronger emission controls on vehicles and industry and more protective air quality standards, there are steps people can take to reduce their own risks from air pollution.

Helping spread the word about what we can do to promote a healthier environment for our own hearts and those of our loved ones is a perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. While I won’t skip picking up a box of chocolate on the way home, next year I think I’ll wear green!

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the science writer for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and the editor of “It All Starts with Science.”

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