Spikes in air pollution increase the risk of dangerous irregular heartbeat problems within hours, study finds

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A study found a link between raised pollution levels and patients going to hospital with heart conditions that increase the risk of stroke and sudden cardiac death

Exposure to air pollution almost immediately increases the risk of irregular heartbeat problems within hours and symptoms can last for a day, a study has found.

The research discovered that there was a significant increase in the risk of arrhythmias in the first few hours after an increase in air pollution levels.

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There was found to be a link between raised pollution levels and patients going to hospital with conditions such as atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter, types of irregular heart rhythm that increase the risk of stroke and sudden cardiac death.

In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly, and in atrial flutter, they beat regularly but much faster than usual.

Dr Renjie Chen of Fudan University in Shanghai said the study highlights “the importance of further reducing exposure to air pollution” and “prompt protection”.

Air pollution can lead to irregular heartbeat problems within hours, study finds. (Photo: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock) Air pollution can lead to irregular heartbeat problems within hours, study finds. (Photo: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock)
Air pollution can lead to irregular heartbeat problems within hours, study finds. (Photo: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock) | NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock

The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, was based on data from more than 2,000 Chinese hospitals and air-quality data from nearby monitoring stations.

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It included more than 190,000 patients with heart rhythm problems including atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter, premature beats and supraventricular tachycardia.

Dr Chen said: “We found that acute exposure to ambient air pollution was associated with increased risk of symptomatic arrhythmia. The risks occurred during the first several hours after exposure and could persist for 24 hours.

“Although the exact mechanisms are not yet fully understood, the association between air pollution and acute onset of arrhythmia that we observed is biologically plausible.”

He said the risk of rhythm irregularities appeared to rise in line with increased concentrations of pollutants.

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The pollutants measured were fine particles (PM2.5), coarse particles (PM2.5–10), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and ozone. Nitrogen dioxide was found to have had the strongest link with all four types of arrhythmias.

Mr Chen said: “Our study adds to evidence of adverse cardiovascular effects of air pollution, highlighting the importance of further reducing exposure to air pollution and of prompt protection of susceptible populations worldwide.”

In 2020, the British Heart Foundation estimated more than 160,000 people could die in the coming decade from strokes and heart attacks linked to air pollution.

Ruth Goss, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “This large-scale study indicates that air pollution has damaging effects on the rhythm of the heart within hours, adding to the growing evidence linking air pollution with an increased risk of heart and circulatory diseases. Whilst this study suggests a link, further research is needed to identify how these pollutants act to disrupt normal heart rhythms.

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“Whilst it is true that air pollution in China is particularly high, air pollutants are known to increase the risk of heart and circulatory diseases wherever they are found. It is estimated that up to 11,000 heart and circulatory disease deaths in the UK are attributable to air pollution each year, so there is an urgent need to reduce pollution to help improve health.”

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