SHE Foundation - "la Caixa" Foundation
Pollution: the toxic fumes that damage the heart


Air pollution is one of modifiable risk factors of the main cardiovascular diseases. This means that airborne toxic fumes are directly responsible for thousands of deaths.

The levels of toxicity in the air we breathe are closely related to respiratory diseases and lung cancer, but the micro particles present in the air also have an effect on our cardiovascular health, contributing to the appearance of cardiac arrhythmias, arteriosclerosis and heart attacks.

PM2.5: the tiny enemies of the heart and brain

These are what we call micro particulates, which mostly come from diesel vehicle emissions and which have a detrimental effect on cardiovascular health. When we inhale them, they attach themselves to the lining of our throat or trachea and under normal circumstances we can expel them by coughing. However, the smallest can get into the bronchial tubes and lungs.

When pollution levels are very high, the PM2 penetrate the respiratory tract and enter the blood system, encouraging the development of thrombi and increased blood pressure, as well as causing vasoconstriction of the coronary arteries that carry blood to the heart and brain.

Children, elderly people and people with chronic illnesses: the most at risk from pollution

Their impact on children can be more serious, because their respiratory system is still immature and they have small, narrow tubes which become inflamed and obstructed more easily.

What is more, these toxic fumes appear to be responsible for weight reduction in newly-born babies, according to the Spanish Society for Pneumology and Thoracic Surgery (SEPAR).

Air pollution is also very detrimental to the cardiovascular system of the over-75s, with the added problem of their weakened respiratory tracts. Similarly, people who also have other risk factors suffer more. This is the case with diabetics, who have 44% more chance of suffering from heart disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has established daily guidelines of between 25 and 50mg/m3 for concentrations of PM2.5. Exceeding these levels represents a serious health risk. It is estimated that continuous exposure to these particulates reduces average life expectancy by 8.6 months. Well, average daily concentrations of PM2.5 in the city of Madrid between 2003 and 2005 ranged between 5 and 71 micrograms per cubic metre; these limits were exceeded on one out of every five days.

Clean air is a basic requirement for health and well-being

We should not forget that human beings are also an integral part of nature and if we disrupt its harmony we suffer the consequences as well. That is why it is very important to understand that we have to look after the air we breathe.

Sources and further information:
Environmental Health Journal
Fundación Española del Corazón
Revista Española de Cardiología