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 opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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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

Learn more at:

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.