EPA Study Shows Poverty Is a Risk Factor for Heart Disease

Every day EPA researchers are advancing our understanding of how air pollution threatens heart health. We will be sharing some of the important studies under way and research discoveries during February in recognition of American Heart Month.

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By Ann Brown

In 2008, lightening started a peat bog wildfire in eastern North Carolina. Dry peat is an organic material that makes a perfect fuel for fire. For weeks the fire smoldered, blanketing communities in 44 rural counties with toxic air pollutants that exceeded EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards at times. As a result, many people went to the emergency department with congestive heart failure, asthma and other health problems from smoke exposure as documented in an EPA study.

The wildfire provided a unique opportunity for researchers to evaluate the reasons behind the heart and respiratory problems caused from smoke exposure. They were interested in whether there are community characteristics than can be used to identify residents whose health might be at risk from wildfires or other sources of air pollution. What exactly did the communities along the Coastal Plain of North Carolina have in common?

Researchers analyzed daily rates of visits to the emergency departments during the fire event and community health factors such as access and quality of clinical care, health behaviors, socioeconomic factors and the characteristics of the physical environment. The findings, published in Environmental Health, indicate low socio-economic status alone can be used to determine if a community is at risk for congestive heart failure or other health problems observed. Low socio-economic status is a term used to describe a group of factors such as low income, inadequate education and safety concerns.

While the knowledge that people in poverty are at greater health risk from air pollution is not new, this study provides scientific evidence that a community’s socio-economic status can be used to identify those at greatest risk from air pollution. This is good news for the public health community and others interested in reaching people with heart or lung diseases who may be at risk of air pollution. This study and others being conducted across the country by epidemiologists are helping to find ways to address health problems in communities. 

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

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