Time to clean up our act on air pollution

Deadly particles are bad for everyone but can make existing heart conditions worse, writes James Cant

Around 40,000 deaths in the UK each year have been linked to air­pollution. Picture: Jon Savage
Around 40,000 deaths in the UK each year have been linked to air­pollution. Picture: Jon Savage

Research that we have funded has shown that air pollution can make existing heart conditions worse and can cause heart attacks and strokes among vulnerable people.

A recent report from the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health reveals that around 40,000 deaths in the UK each year are linked to air ­pollution.

Furthermore, it states that there is no level of exposure that can be seen to be safe. In other words, air pollution is harmful to everyone.

But if you’re one of the 710,000 people in Scotland living with heart disease, stroke and heart failure you’re at more risk with every breath you take.

The BHF is leading the way in proving the links between air pollution and heart disease because of the research we’re funding at our Edinburgh Centre of Research Excellence.

Professor David Newby and Professor Nick Mills have been studying how air pollution causes heart disease for over a decade. They’ve found that diesel and petrol fumes pollute the air with ultra-fine nanoparticles. These nanoparticles go deep into the lungs, even into the bloodstream, and stop blood vessels relaxing and contracting, which increases the risk of clots and heart attacks. The scientists have also investigated the role of facemasks in protecting against the damaging effects of pollution on the heart. Although the research suggests that facemasks may improve some risk factors, there is not currently enough evidence to support the routine use of facemasks in the UK at this time.

We need to clean up our act. In some areas our air is polluted to an illegal level, according to EU regulations, and this is unacceptable. But even where pollution levels are legal, these are still detrimental to our health.

Given the large number of people living with heart disease, and the likelihood of their exposure to air pollution, UK governments must do everything they can to meet European Commission targets as soon as possible to improve air quality and protect our hearts.

We need to work in partnership with the Scottish Government and other health bodies to identify robust measures to tackle many of the causes of harmful air pollution including our congested roads.

What can you do?

People with coronary heart disease, and particularly those with heart failure, should avoid spending long periods outdoors in areas where traffic pollution is likely to be high. Local air quality reports could help people understand when they might be most at risk. You can download our heart health leaflet from bhf.org.uk/airpollution to get more information.

However, for most people, the benefits of exercising outdoors outweigh the risks associated with 
pollution. Thanks to your fundraising, legacies and donations we’ll continue to fund research exploring the links between air pollution and heart disease.

• James Cant is director, British Heart Foundation Scotland

• To find out more about the research we are funding, and to make a donation, visit bhf.org.uk/research