Are Your Genes Making You Susceptible to Air Pollution?


Healthy Heart graphic identifier

By Ann Brown

Smoking, high-fat diets and a couch potato lifestyle are risk factors for heart disease.  Kicking the habit, changing your diet and exercising are ways to reduce those risks and enhance quality of life.

But there may be a risk factor for heart disease that is more complicated to address: our genes. Our genetic makeup that we inherit from our parents may contribute to the development of heart disease, but our genes may also play a role in how our cardiovascular system responds to air pollution.  

We all have the same set of genes, but there are subtle differences in the makeup of those genes that vary from one person to another.  These individual variations are called polymorphisms and have been shown to make some people more susceptible to things like breast cancer or diabetes. 

Research has shown that high levels of air pollution, particularly fine particles emitted by cars, trucks, factories and wildfires, can trigger heart attacks and worsen heart symptoms in people who have heart disease. But are some people with heart disease more responsive to high levels of air pollution than others because of their genes?  

EPA researchers and collaborators are investigating the contributions genes may have in the way individuals respond to air pollution exposure. The study is made possible by tapping into a unique database of genetic and clinical information called CATHGEN, developed by Duke University Medical Center. The database contains health information from nearly 10,000 volunteers, most who have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. 

The database is providing an opportunity for EPA and other environmental health researchers to ask whether specific genetic variations make people more susceptible to the damaging effects of air pollution on the heart. While people cannot change their genetic make-up, it is hoped that the knowledge gained from this research can one day be used by health care providers to educate their patients with heart disease. Heart patients don’t have to wait for more research to take action, however.

EPA recommends people who are more sensitive to air pollution, such as those with heart disease, take steps to reduce their exposure during times when pollution levels are higher. You can check current and forecasted air quality conditions at

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About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.


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