Air Quality Awareness Week: Greener Hearts Result in a More Enjoyable Summer

By Dr. Wayne Cascio

I was pleased to see that the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report notes that the country’s air is getting cleaner—a perfect way to kick off Air Quality Awareness Week (April 29 through May 3). The report, based on EPA findings from 2009 through 2011, should not only indicate a healthier U.S. public, but also a savings of billions of dollars in reduced medical costs.

As an EPA environmental health researcher, cardiologist, and promoter of our Green Heart initiative to raise awareness of the links between air quality and cardiovascular health, it was rewarding to note the many Agency efforts that have contributed to the improved state of the country’s air quality.

EPA has lead many research efforts to examine the effects of environmental irritants—such as dust, smoke, and smog (which is most prevalent during the approaching summer months)—in the air. Our studies have resulted in recommendations on actions that people predisposed to asthma and heart-related diseases can take to protect their health.

One valuable tool is EPA’s color-coded Air Quality Index, which provides guidelines for at-risk individuals for

School Flag Program

being outdoors or exercising in relation to air quality. A similar program has been introduced at local schools called the School Flag Program. The colored flags displayed on school yard flagpoles alert students, teachers, coaches and the community to the air quality forecast for the day.

According to 2010 EPA data (the most recent year available), benefits from improved air quality helped to avoid 1.7 million asthma attacks and reduced hospital admissions and emergency room visits significantly. Such impacts also yield major savings of medical expenses across the country.

So, as we enter the summer season when air quality issues are common, remember to acquaint yourself with the Air Quality Index and other EPA tools, rely on their guidance to assist you in staying well, and enjoy your summer!

About the Author: 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. His research explores the effects of air pollution on the heart and blood vessels.

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.

Green Heart: Spreading the Word about Air Pollution and Your Health

By Kathy Sykes

When I moved to Washington DC from my native Madison, Wisconsin, I missed the clean air that I had taken for granted.  Summers in DC with sweltering temperatures and “Ozone Action Days” made it feel difficult to breathe just walking to work.  On those days, a song kept playing in my head, “Pollution,” by satirist Tom Lehrer.

“Pollution, pollution, Wear a gas mask and a veil. Then you can breathe, long as you don’t inhale.”

I couldn’t see the harmful air pollution, but it weighed heavy on my chest on my daily jogs around Capitol Hill.   Even though my work at the time (for the Senate Aging Committee) included health issues, I never worked on raising awareness about air pollutants and their serious harmful effects on older adults, especially those living with heart disease.

That’s changed now that I’m at EPA, where I serve on the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Periodically, the Forum publishes a chart book of key indicators of well-being, including an indicator on air quality and older adults.

In 2012, the Forum released its fourth update on air quality and demonstrated progress made overtime with respect to the two most harmful air pollutants for older adults: PM 2.5 (also known as particulate matter), and ozone.  The chart book shows (click on the link for Indicator 27) the percent of people living in counties with air pollutants above the EPA health-based standards.

Each state monitors air quality and reports it to EPA.  The EPA then determines whether air pollutant measurements are above health standards.  In 2002, nearly half of the population lived in counties with poor air pollution. By 2010, about 40% of our population lived in a county with poor air quality for some period that year.

While we are making progress, more work remains to be done.

Another federal collaborative effort I devote my time to is the National Prevention Strategy (NPS) that was created as part of the Affordable Care Act.   Seventeen federal agencies work together to look at what we can do to advance health prevention.

Led by Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, each federal agency announced commitment areas as part of the NPS.  One of EPA’s is through the Green Heart initiative which strives to educate people about air pollution and how they can reduce their exposure on poor air quality days.

The Green Heart initiative complements the Million Heart Campaign, an initiative by the Department of Health and Human Services to prevent a million heart attacks over five years.  The Green Heart Initiative has a simple message for people with cardiovascular disease: check the Air Quality Index and reduce your activity on days when the air quality is not good.

There is even an app that will notify you when the air quality is unhealthy. A fact sheet, Environmental Hazards Weigh Heavy on the Heart, for older adults and their caregivers can be ordered on-line on EPA’s Aging web page.

While there are still counties where air pollution is an issue, I’m glad to know there are actions we can take to protect our heart health.

About the Author: Kathy Sykes has been working for the EPA since 1998 where she focuses on older adults and the built environment and healthy communities.  In 2012, she joined the Office of Research and Development and serves as Senior Advisor for Aging and Sustainability.

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.

Green Heart: Burn Wise for Your Heart

By Ann Brown

February—American Heart Month—is a time I renew my commitment to protect my heart.

I try to eat a healthier diet and exercise more. I check the local air quality before going outside to exercise since fine particle pollution in the air has been linked to heart disease. Fine particles harm the heart and blood vessels and can lead to heart attacks, stroke, and congestive heart failure, especially in people with heart disease.

I am aware of the environmental link between fine particle pollution and heart disease, but I didn’t realize until joining EPA’s Burn Wise program recently that smoke from wood stoves and wood-burning fireplaces is a significant source of fine particle pollution in many parts of the country. I was surprised to find out that there are about 12 million wood stoves and 29 million fireplaces in the U.S.

The good news is that people who burn wood can reduce fine particle pollution by following some simple steps. One way is to use a moisture meter, an inexpensive tool that you stick into wood to find out whether the wood is dry enough to burn efficiently. If the wood is wet, it creates more smoke and fine particle pollution in the air that can harm your health. Wet wood also costs you money and time since it will not produce as much heat. Find out more about how to use a moisture meter in the video Wet Wood is a Waste.

I’ve also recently learned that drying wood is easy, but requires a few steps. The best way to dry wood is to split it, stack it to allow air to circulate, and cover it or store it in a wood shed. This promotes drying and cleaner burning.  Find out more about how to properly split, stack, cover and store your wood in the video Split, Stack, Cover, Store.

These practices are a win-win for your pocketbook and your heart.  Visit EPA’s Burn Wise website to learn  more about ways to burn the right wood, the right way, in the right wood-burning appliance.

Learn more!

About the Author: Ann Brown is a communications specialist and is working in the Innovative Programs and Outreach Group in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

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.

Scientist at Work: Mehdi S. Hazari, Ph.D.

EPA scientist Mehdi S. Hazari is a recipient of the 2011 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Dr. Mehdi’s award recognizes his work demonstrating how breathing in low levels of air pollutants, such as particulate matter and ground level ozone, can increase people’s susceptibility to heart attacks and other cardiac events. His research is also receiving international recognition and is under consideration for inclusion in the update of worldwide standards. Read more about his research in the previous blog post, “You Don’t Need Oz to Give You a Healthy Heart.”

What do you like most about your research?

The opportunity to try something new in the laboratory, but more broadly, the direct impact it can potentially have on protecting human health and the environment.

How does your science matter?

Despite the fact that we are learning quite a bit about how air pollution is directly detrimental to the body, particularly when adverse symptoms are observed, we still need to better identify the latent (hidden) effects of exposure. This is especially true of low concentration exposures to air pollution during which no direct responses may be observed.

My work demonstrates that even in the absence of obvious “symptoms,” air pollution might have the potential to cause subtle internal body changes that increase the risk of triggering something bad happening to your heart, such as an arrhythmia. We all know that exercise is generally a good thing, but its hard physical activity that does create mild to moderate stress on the body. Add high air pollution levels into the mix on a hot day, and instead of getting healthier, that stress might be the trigger for an adverse response. Doing that same activity in a healthy air environment might not. And in the case of stress, it doesn’t have to be just air pollution. The triggers might be any stressful stimuli.

Again, I think my science matters because of the direct impact it can potentially have on protecting human health and the environment.

If you could have dinner with any scientist past or present, who would it be and what would you like to ask them about?

William Harvey—the English physician and physiologist who completely described the cardiovascular system.

Continue reading Dr. Hazari’s interview here.

Read more Scientist at Work profiles here.

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.

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.”

Learn more!

Green Heart Initiative at http://www.epa.gov/greenheart/.
Follow us on Twitter at @EPAresearch

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.

Scientist at Work: Robert Devlin, Ph.D.

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 can do stay healthy!

Meet EPA Scientist Robert Devlin, Ph.D.

EPA scientist Dr. Robert Devlin’s main research interest is understanding the human health effects of air pollution. His research is used to characterize the effects that inhaled substances, such as air pollutants, have on human pulmonary (related to lungs and breathing) and cardiovascular (heart, lungs, and blood flow) health, and the physiological changes responsible for those effects.

When he retires Dr. Devlin hopes to become a star on the senior PGA golf tour as well as a movie reviewer for Entertainment Weekly.

How does your science matter?

I know my research matters because the results help set standards that protect people from real world exposures to air pollutants. As an example, we did a study Exit EPA Disclaimer a few years ago examining the lowest level of ozone that people could be safely exposed to and still be safe. Being able to conduct a study that ensures that our standards protect the public is important, and it makes you feel like your work means something.

We’re also interested in figuring out what we can tell people so they can protect themselves from air pollutants if they find themselves in a place with higher air pollution levels than EPA believes is safe (Editor’s note: for more information, also see EPA’s Green Heart web page: http://www.epa.gov/greenheart/). We just completed a study Exit EPA Disclaimer, in which we found a positive relationship between taking fish oil tablets and protecting yourself against some of the effects of air pollution on the cardiovascular system.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in Texas and got my doctorate from the University of Virginia Exit EPA Disclaimer in the area of developmental biology. My graduate research involved looking at genes that control the development of muscles in bird embryos using molecular biology approaches. I was on the faculty for Emory University Exit EPA Disclaimer for several years doing that research right after receiving my doctorate.

Keep reading Dr. Devlin’s interview here.

Read more Scientist at Work interviews here.

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.

For more Information:

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.