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Home » Cardiac Health, Environment, EU Health, Health, pollution

We must clean up the air to protect our hearts

Submitted by on 13 Apr 2018 – 09:03

There’s something in the air and it’s affecting our heart health and now is the time to clean it up to protect our hearts, writes Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive, British Heart Foundation.

It’s an invisible and potentially deadly problem that many of us aren’t even aware of, but it’s contributing to over 550,000 premature deaths across Europe each year. (1) The problem? Air pollution. While the impact of air pollution on our lungs is widely understood, its link with heart and circulatory disease is often overlooked.

A 2015 poll commissioned by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) found that less than half of people surveyed were aware of the link between air pollution and heart conditions and just two out of 10 people knew that it can increase your risk of stroke. Globally, 80 percent of deaths related to outdoor air pollution are due to heart disease or stroke. (2) If more isn’t done to improve air quality in the UK and abroad, it has the potential to become one of the biggest public health crises of this generation.

Research funded by BHF has helped demonstrate this link. We have invested £3.2 million into medical research in this area, since 2010. Our research shows that both short- and long-term exposure to air pollution can cause or exacerbate existing cardiovascular conditions. It has also demonstrated that there is a particularly strong link between heart and circulatory disease and the tiny particles in the air known as particulate matter or PM that are often derived from vehicle exhausts. While the link between air pollution and heart disease is well established, there is still much more we need to understand about exactly how air pollution damages hearts. In April, new research published by the University of Edinburgh shed light on how this might occur. Researchers demonstrated for the first time that tiny nanoparticles in the air can travel into the blood and accumulate in diseased blood vessels where they could worsen coronary heart disease – the most common cause of a heart attack.

The link between air pollution and heart disease is getting clearer every day. Bold action is needed from governments across Europe to clean up our air and protect those most at risk. Pledges to ban all new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, like those announced recently by the UK and France, are important ambitions and set out a positive vision for the future. But we also need steps that will start improving air quality now.

The UK government’s recent air quality plan went some way to addressing this – announcing 29 clean air zones and providing investment in low emission vehicles– but this should go further. Measures such as charging the most polluting vehicles to enter clean air zones and delivering a targeted diesel scrappage scheme are still the most rapid and effective ways to improve the nation’s air quality. We must also be more ambitious in the air pollution limits that we are seeking to meet and adapt the recommendations of the World Health Organization. The UK’s current legal limits are far less stringent than this.

While individual governments have a crucial role to play in improving air quality, we must not forget the continued need for international cooperation. This is particularly relevant at a time when the UK is negotiating its new relationship with the EU. Air pollution does not observe national borders and each country’s air quality policies cannot operate entirely in isolation.

This cooperation is important at a policy level, to establish common frameworks and systems, but also to conduct high quality research. Research collaboration allows us to share knowledge, pool resources and provide new perspectives on an area of research.

A recent study at the University of Edinburgh mentioned earlier, for example, was carried out in collaboration with researchers in the Netherlands. This is not unusual. Between 2010 and 2014, almost half of all research papers acknowledging BHF funding had an international co-author. (3) There is evidence that internationally collaborative research has greater impact than research produced in isolation. (4) Post-Brexit, it is vital that this type of collaboration continues to ensure that we produce high quality research that deepens our understanding of heart and circulatory disease and air pollution and provides the foundations needed to develop evidence-based policy.

Now is the time for the United Kingdom to be bold and deliver on the UK government’s vision to become a global leader in air quality, but we cannot tackle this problem alone. If we are to make real improvements in the quality of the air we breathe, we must also preserve and strengthen our networks with colleagues across the world, from research right through to policy and practice. Getting this right is vital for the 85 million people across Europe living with heart and circulatory disease. (5)


1. Air quality in Europe – 2016 report, European Environment Agency 2016

2. World Health Organization, Burden of disease from Ambient Air Pollution for 2012, page 2

3. BHF research evaluation report, 2016

4. Technopolis, The impact of collaboration: the value of UK medical research to EU science and health, 2017

5. European Heart Network, CVD Statistics, 2017