Pathfinder Innovation Project—Using Zebrafish to Quickly Screen Air Pollution Sources for Potential Impact on Heart Health

By Aimen Farraj

Fine particulate matter (PM)—a tiny mass of solid and liquid matter floating in the air—comes from sources that emit air pollution including automobiles, power plants and forest fires, and is also formed by the interaction of other air pollutants.  PM is everywhere and exposure levels are largely determined by how close one is to an emitting air pollution source.

Many studies have shown that PM’s health effects stem largely from its impact on the heart, driving people to the hospital and making diseases like heart failure worse.  These health effects are caused by chemicals within particulate matter, which vary depending on the air pollution source.  No two air sheds are alike, resulting in endless numbers of unique PM samples with little information on their potential to affect health. Traditional methods for assessment are just too slow and impractical.

In 2013, our team applied for a Pathfinder Innovation Project (PIP) to develop an approach to rapidly assess the cardiotoxicity potential of PM from different sources. The PIP program is an internal competition for EPA scientists to receive time to explore their biggest ideas in environmental research. The goal of this work is to identify PM sources and PM components that cause cardiovascular effects on a larger scale to expedite risk determinations associated with exposure to different air sheds.

an illustration of a zebrafish

Two day-old wild type zebrafish used for heart rate determinations

To do this, we developed a zebrafish model to assess cardiotoxicity of PM from different sources.  Zebrafish are tropical freshwater fish that have uncanny similarities in cardiac function with humans and their small size makes them ideal for rapid testing.  The zebrafish model we developed is based on measurement of a simple health metric, i.e. heart rate, in hundreds of fish in a 96-well plate. Since the early days of the project, we have demonstrated that this model can be used to quickly assess cardiac impacts of PM exposure.

Now the team is working to refine all aspects of the model, including increased automation to permit rapid heart rate determinations and to expand the number of PM sources assessed.  If successful, this effort may accelerate the pace at which PM toxicity information is acquired, link health effects to specific air pollution sources, and inform strategies to target and reduce PM sources linked to highest potency components.

 

Pathfinder Innovation Project Team: Aimen Farraj, Stephanie Padilla, Alan Tennant, Rory Conolly, David DeMarini, Ian Gilmour, Mike Hays, Najwa Haykal-Coates, Wayne Cascio, Mehdi Hazari, and Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education student Kyle Martin

 

About the Author: Dr. Aimen K. Farraj is in his eleventh year as EPA’s Principal Investigator in the Environmental Public Health Division.  His research interests include the study of the adverse cardiovascular effects of air pollution and development of better predictive tools for risk assessment.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

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Olive Oil and Fish Oil: Possible Protectors against Air Pollution

By Rose Keane

My grandmother is 97, and last year she chopped down an orange tree in her backyard with an axe. Recently I asked her how she was still able to live and move around so independently, and she says to me in her thick Austrian accent, “I take fish oil tablets – they’re very good.” Many people have said that fish oil will improve your health, but when you ask them they have no idea how or why. EPA scientist Dr. Samantha J. Snow is working to answer some questions about what fish oil may do by investigating the potential link between fish oil and how the body handles air pollution exposure.

Dr. Snow looks at a slide

EPA scientist Dr. Samantha J. Snow

Snow is receiving the Women in Toxicology’s Postdoctoral Achievement Award, presented by the Society of Toxicology (SOT), at the annual meeting held in New Orleans this week. Her recent research uses animal models to look at how these oils in the diet might change how the body handles exposure to ozone, a common outdoor air pollutant. A large body of scientific research has shown that the lungs and heart can be affected by air pollution. Scientists like Snow are studying whether ozone pollutants in the air are damaging other organ systems and even how our bodies use and regulate energy, also known as our metabolism. Snow and her colleagues are trying to find out whether adding fish oil to a diet can help people like my grandmother ward off the damaging effects of air pollution.

What the team discovered so far is that fish oil and olive oil could potentially protect muscles in the body from breaking down due to air pollution exposure. That might explain how my Oma was able to tackle that tree! The preliminary findings also suggest that fish oil could protect against higher levels of cholesterol caused by air pollution. However, olive oil was linked to a decreased ability to regulate glucose levels in the blood after ozone exposure.

Dr. Snow using a microscopeThese results could have very interesting implications for health research in the future, and could help scientists better identify how changing our diets might actually help protect our bodies from the harmful effects of air pollution. Scientists will also be better equipped to understand how the different systems in the body react differently to exposure.

In addition to her research, Snow has been very active in leadership roles in organizations such as the Society of Toxicology Postdoctoral Assembly and the Rho Tau chapter of Graduate Women in Science.

Snow’s presentation, entitled ‘Coconut, Fish and Olive Oil- Rich Diets Modify Ozone Induced Metabolic Effects,’ is one of many by EPA scientists at the largest toxicology meeting in the U.S. For a complete list of all EPA researchers presenting at this year’s SOT event, visit us at https://epa.gov/research/sot.

About the Author: Rose Keane is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor with the science communications team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Are Some People More At Risk from Air Pollution?

By Dina Abdulhadi

Rearview mirror during an early morning commute.

A study by researchers from EPA and Duke University reflects how traffic-related air pollution can impact the health of people living in nearby communities.

I’m driving in rush hour traffic, waiting for the slow crawl of cars to reach the speed I would be moving had I biked home. My heart rate rises slightly; it’s a beautiful summer day and I’m thinking of the many things I’d rather be doing than sitting in traffic.

The congestion eventually eases though, and I’m home. I breathe deeply, and my heart rate lowers.

The stress I felt had an immediate but temporary effect on my health. For people who live in communities near these congested roadways, however, traffic can have a longer-term impact on heart health. And even then, air pollution does not affect everyone equally.

A new study suggests that women and African-Americans who live near busy roadways may have a greater risk than their white male counterparts for developing high fasting blood sugar levels, a risk factor for heart disease.

The study used a database called CATHGEN, developed by Duke University. It contains health information on nearly 10,000 people who received cardiac catheterization, a common test for heart disease. Researchers at EPA and Duke University are using the participant’s health data to see how air pollution also affects the progression of heart disease.

A large body of research has connected fine particulate matter, a common air pollutant, to health effects, including heart problems. Many studies have even found that consistent exposure to the same elevated level of air pollution can have a stronger impact on blood glucose for women than men. But the race-related disparity is a new observation, researchers conclude in the study.

This study is one in a series that aims to see how factors like age, sex, race, disease status, genetic makeup, socioeconomic status, and where a person lives can put someone at greater risk from the health effects of air pollution. The knowledge gained through CATHGEN studies can be used to develop public health strategies for protecting those at greater risk from air pollution and to support review of the Air Quality Standards under the Clean Air Act.

Ongoing EPA CATHGEN studies are expected to provide more answers to the question of whether air pollution may affect people differently. In the meantime, read this first CATHGEN study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives and titled, Association of Roadway Proximity with Fasting Plasma Glucose and Metabolic Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease in a Cross-Sectional Study of Cardiac Catheterization Patients.

Air pollution most strongly effects those already at risk for heart disease, mainly older adults and those with high blood pressure, cholesterol, or history of heart problems. Though I’m young and healthy, days with higher pollution levels can still make me winded while exercising even if they don’t trigger a heart attack. Reading papers like this reminds me to check the Air Quality Index before planning long summer bike rides and makes me appreciate how important environmental quality is to human health.

About the Author: Dina Abdulhadi is a student contractor working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

How Many Breaths Do You Take Each Day?

By Ann Brown

Map of U.S. with color-coded air quality index

It’s Air Quality Awareness Week!

Watching the news and the problems that some countries are having with high levels of air pollution makes me appreciate the Clean Air Act, which calls on EPA and the states to protect air quality through programs based on the latest science and technology. I am especially appreciative today, the first day of Air Quality Awareness Week.

When I joined EPA’s Office of Research and Development 16 years ago, I didn’t think much about the quality of the air I breathe. I took it for granted. It is an unlimited supply. I don’t have to pay a monthly bill for it. It is just there for the benefit of my body.

Then as I began to work with scientists and engineers conducting air research at EPA, I gained an appreciation for this precious resource.  Their research showed me why it is important to know what is in the air, how you can be exposed to any pollutants it contains, and what the related risks and health effects might be. I’ve also learned about their work on advancing control technologies to reduce air pollution. EPA scientists are working in all these areas to provide the science that can be used to protect air quality.

The average person takes between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths a day. That is a lot of breaths…and each one is an opportunity to put pollutants into your lungs and body and to increase health risks if you are exposed to air pollution. For example:

  • Research shows that air pollution is linked to health effects and disease, including heart disease and stroke. EPA is a partner in the Million Hearts initiative to educate the public, especially those with heart disease, about the dangers of air pollution to their health. You can learn more about air pollution and heart disease at www.epagov/healthyheart.
  • Air pollution can cause or worsen asthma. Extensive research links asthma to ozone, particle pollution and a host of common indoor environmental asthma triggers. Join EPA experts to discuss asthma and outdoor air pollution on a Twitter chat on May 1 at 2 p.m. (Eastern Time) on @EPALive. Use the hashtag #asthma.

Air quality awareness week is a good time to learn what you can do to protect your health and the health of your friends and family. Many resources are available to learn about air quality and how to protect your health. A good start is to use the Air Quality Index where you can get daily local air quality reports and information to protect your health from air pollution.

Scientists continue to investigate air quality to protect our health and the environment. I’m glad to be a small part of this effort. Learn more about what scientists are doing at www.epa.gov/airscience.

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

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

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 www.airnow.gov.

Learn more at: epa.gov/healthyheart

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

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Air Pollution May be “Hard” on the Body’s Blood Vessels

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.

Healthy Heart graphic identifier

By Ann Brown

Can air pollution affect your heart? The short answer is—yes.  It can trigger heart attacks, stroke and cause other cardiovascular health problems. The long answer is that while we know that air pollution impacts the heart, additional research is needed to learn more about how this happens and what pollutants or mixtures are responsible.

An unprecedented 10-year study funded by EPA and the National Institutes of Health, called the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis and Air Pollution (MESA Air), is providing new information about the impacts of fine particle pollution on the arteries — the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart and other parts of the body. Fine particles are microscopic bits of matter that are emitted mostly from the burning of fossil fuel. They have been found to be bad for the heart, at high levels.

MESA Air is expanding our knowledge of a condition that can set you up for a heart attack—atherosclerosis. You may have heard of the term “hardening of the arteries.” Well, that refers to atherosclerosis when there is a buildup of fats, cholesterol, and calcium in and on the artery walls, most commonly known as plaque. The buildup of plaques can result in a blood clot, which can block the flow of blood and trigger a heart attack. While atherosclerosis is often considered a heart problem, it can affect arteries anywhere in your body; in the brain, it may lead to strokes.

The MESA Air study is finding evidence of associations between long-term fine particle pollution and the progression of atherosclerosis. Another important observation from the MESA Air study shows that long-term exposure to fine particle pollution limited the ability of arteries to widen when the body needs more blood flow to the heart, say, when running up a flight of stairs.

These are among the many discoveries coming out of the MESA Air study that are providing new insights into how air pollution can contribute to atherosclerosis and lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Those with heart disease who may be exposed to high levels of air pollutants can take action to protect their heart. A good first step is to be aware of high air pollution days. Check the daily air pollution forecast in your area by using the Air Quality Index at www.airnow.gov.

Learn more at epa.gov/healthyheart.

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

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

To Your Good Health: Climate Action May Yield Significant Health “Co-Benefits”

By John Dawson

our_changing_planet_2008_166_20090708_2071842232 (1)Everyone likes a two-for-one deal, and a study published in Nature Climate Change shows we get such a bargain when we reduce carbon dioxide, an air pollutant also known as a greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide emissions from cars, trucks, coal-fired power plants and other fossil-fuel-burning sources are causing a threat to our health because of the pollutant’s role in warming the atmosphere and causing climate change.

Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, EPA, and several other institutions identified co-benefits of reducing greenhouse gases. The study was funded by EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program.

The team used computer models to simulate global air quality under two scenarios. One depicted a world with no global policy to limit greenhouse gases, allowing carbon dioxide concentrations to increase from present levels of just under 400 parts per million (ppm) to 760 ppm in 2100. A second scenario simulated global carbon emission reductions to achieve concentrations of 525 ppm in 2100. Scientists then calculated how these two disparate policies would affect other air pollutants, or “co-pollutants,” that are emitted along with carbon dioxide.

Their analysis showed that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would yield major benefits by improving air quality and public health.

The researchers calculated that the second carbon emission reduction scenario (which includes expected economic growth) would prevent one-half million air-pollution-related premature deaths per year globally in 2030; these benefits would grow to 1.3 million fewer deaths in 2050, and 2.2 million in 2100.

These health benefits are estimated to be equivalent to between $50 and $380 per ton of carbon dioxide reduced globally.

The study shows that the health-related economic benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions may outweigh the costs of control—even before the benefits of reducing climate change are realized.

While a single scenario is not enough to draw definitive conclusions about the ramifications of future greenhouse gas emission reductions, the research does suggest there may be multiple benefits to reductions: limiting climate change, reducing other air pollutants at the same time and providing a safer and healthier environment.

To read the study, “Co-benefits of mitigating global greenhouse gas emissions for future air quality and human health,” go to http://bit.ly/15OY2Xr.

About the Author: John Dawson is a Physical Scientist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Asthma Awareness Month: Tackling Prevention

By Sally Darney 

SoccerplayerwithballWhen my daughter decided to join a soccer team, I was delighted.  Sports would provide healthy exercise, along with a host of other physical and mental benefits.  So we were dismayed when she complained of tightness in her throat and difficulty breathing during the games.

A trip to the doctor revealed “exercise-induced asthma,” but thankfully she was able to manage her symptoms with an inhaler and stay on the team.  I had little awareness of this disease at the time, but now know that childhood asthma is common, affecting nearly one in ten American children.

This month we celebrate Asthma Awareness Month learning about asthma triggers and the latest advances in medical treatment and comprehensive care for our children.

But what causes asthma to begin with?  Asthma is a curious disease that can first appear in toddlers, school-aged children like my daughter, or even in adults. Furthermore, studies have shown ethnic and economic-related disparities of who is most at risk. African American children, children of certain Hispanic groups, and children living in poor communities are more likely to get asthma, and to suffer more severe attacks, than Caucasian children and those in the higher social-economic groups. (For more information, download America’s Children and the Environment.)

This disparity suggests that the causes of asthma involve a complex interplay of environmental and social-economic factors, which in turn interact with a genetic-based predisposition. These factors can  play a role in both causing the disease itself, and in exacerbating the symptoms.

EPA researchers and partners from across the federal government are banding together to address asthma causes and disparities.  I was fortunate to be on the taskforce behind the landmark report: The Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities.

Working with scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other agencies, EPA is helping implement the Plan, which emphasizes how research into the causes of asthma can help inform ways to tackle this burdensome disease.

We can’t change our genetics, but we can change the “environmental stressors” that contribute to, and cause, asthma.  To advance that work, researchers in ORD and from across the network of Centers for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention, co-sponsored by EPA and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, are exploring causes of asthma that can be prevented even before a baby is born. For instance, recent research has revealed that women who smoke during pregnancy, or are exposed to high levels of air pollution and/or certain environmental chemicals, are at increased risk of having a baby who develops asthma as a child.

Armed with more knowledge about the causes of asthma, pregnant women, mothers of young children, health care providers and decision makers can take actions to avoid risky exposures and provide healthy, asthma-free environments for women and children—preventing asthma from the start.

I’ll never know why my daughter got asthma, but I am happy to work at a place that is looking to prevent it. I have faith that together our research will do that, and eliminate racial and ethnic asthma disparities. Whether you play soccer or not, it’s a goal we can all shoot for.

About the Author: Sally Perreault Darney, Ph.D. is a senior health scientist at EPA working on  coordinating Agency research on children’s environmental health.      

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

American Heart Month: Air Pollution and Your Health

February is American Heart Month! To help spread the word about heart health, EPA scientists and staff will write each week about the Agency’s Green Heart effort to educate the public about of the connection between air pollution and your heart. Be sure to check back each week to learn more, and for tips on what you can do to stay healthy!

By Jason Sacks, Beth Owens, and Barbara Buckley

It’s February, which means that it’s Heart Health Month. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. Many people associate heart disease with a poor diet or lack of exercise.  What you may not realize, though, is that exposure to air pollution, specifically small airborne particles, can impact heart health, particularly for people with cardiovascular disease. That’s why EPA has launched the “Green Heart” initiative.

Airborne particles, or particulate matter (PM), consist of a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that can be found in smoke and haze. Small airborne particles, known as fine PM, can be emitted from sources such as forest fires or formed when gases emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles react in the air.

Fine particles are very small—less than two and a half microns. To put it in perspective, the period at the end of this sentence measures more than 600 microns. When fine particles are breathed in, they pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs. From there they can cause serious health problems in the rest of the body.

As EPA scientists, we make sure the most recent and scientifically sound research is used to protect the public’s health from the harmful effects of air pollution. Over the last 20 years, thousands of scientific studies have reported that breathing in fine PM can lead to harmful effects on the heart, blood, and blood vessels. These studies show that exposure to PM can cause premature death, strokes, heart attacks, and cardiac arrest for people who are already at risk.

As we celebrate Heart Health Month, take a minute to not only consider the physical and nutritional changes you can make to improve your heart health, but also the actions you can take to reduce your exposure to air pollution. For more information about what you can do please visit: http://epa.gov/greenheart/.

About the Author: Jason Sacks is an epidemiologist and Beth Owens and Barbara Buckley are toxicologists in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment. They work on Integrated Science Assessments, which form the scientific basis of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

American Heart Month: Taking Action to Protect Our Health

February is American Heart Month! To help spread the word about heart health, EPA scientists and staff will write each week about the Agency’s Green Heart effort to educate the public about of the connection between air pollution and your heart. Be sure to check back each week to learn more, and for tips on what you can do to stay healthy!

By Wayne E. Cascio, MD

It’s February and Heart Month has arrived and with it a reminder to think about what we can all do to stay well and keep our hearts healthy. As a cardiologist, the month-long focus on the heart gives me a great opportunity to share information with my patients—and now hopefully with anyone who reads this blog—on how they can protect their hearts. It also reminds me to think about the things I do that can hurt or help my heart.

Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the U.S. for men and women. Less than one percent of Americans have ideal heart health and about 26.5 million have some type of heart disease.

But there are things we can do both individually and collectively to help our hearts. The Global Burden of Disease 2010 study recently published in the medical journal The Lancet describes 67 key factors affecting disability and death in North America. Among the top 20 risk factors, 19 are directly related to individual behavioral or lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise or smoking; or the consequences of those choices.

The remaining risk factor in the top 20 is not associated with individual lifestyle choices, but is more a consequence of our collective actions, namely what we do as a society that leads to air pollution. Air particle pollution (also known as soot) in particular is ranked as the 14th most important.

While in general we have little personal control over air pollution where we live, work and play, there are things we have done as a society that can have lasting positive impacts. The Clean Air Act, for example.

The Act strives to ensure that all Americans are breathing healthy air.  Research by EPA and others shows that improved air quality leads to healthier and longer lives. And thanks in large part to that research, the Agency recently strengthened the annual health standard for fine particle pollution (PM2.5)  (from 15 to 12 micrograms per cubic meter) to  make our air cleaner and healthier.

While EPA continues to work to keep your air clean, there are steps you can take to reduce your personal exposure to air pollutants. For one, don’t smoke and avoid the smoke of others. Second, if you have heart disease consult the Air Quality Index (AQI) as part of your daily routine. The index provides information on air quality and how to avoid unhealthy exposures when air pollutants are high. Simple things like limiting or avoiding exercise outside during high pollution days can help to protect your health and your heart.

So keep in mind during this month of the heart, healthy lifestyle choices including a healthy diet and regular exercise, keeping an eye on your local air quality report, and supporting actions to support clean air are all things we can do for a healthy heart.

About the Author: Cardiologist Wayne E. Cascio, MD is the Director of EPA’s Environmental Public Health Division, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Fellow of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. Dr. Cascio’s research explores the effects of air pollution on the heart and blood vessels.

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