When the country went into widespread lockdowns during 2020, the majority of commuters were not using public or personal transportation, leading to a significant drop in air pollution.
A team of researchers presenting their study at the American Heart Association’s online meeting on Saturday have found that heart attack events were linked to the quantity of pollution in the air, with 6% fewer heart attacks for each 10 microgram-per-cubic-meter drop in particle pollution.
“The main message from our research is that efforts to reduce ambient pollution can prevent the most severe form of heart attacks,” said Sidney Aung, a medical student at the University of California-San Francisco, who led the team’s research.
In order to determine the correlation, the team looked at federal data on cardiac events as well as data on the level of pollution across the country. The team observed that fewer heart attacks occurred after April of 2020 in regions where air simultaneously became less polluted due to lockdowns.
The particles that make up pollution in the air are incredibly small, only a fraction of the size of a strand of hair. Previous studies have found, however, that the inhalation of these microscopic particles can lead to arrhythmia, inflammation, and hypercoagulation.
“These all represent ways that bad air could lead to more heart attacks, which is why we think improvements in air quality could lead to fewer heart attacks,” Aung explained.
Experts hope that the link between air pollution and heart attacks changes public health
Although the reduction in particles was relatively small, the cumulative process of decreasing air pollution can have a dramatic effect on public health:
“However, we want to reiterate that even a smaller decrease in particulate matter concentration and subsequently any reduction in heart attacks could be tremendously beneficial for public health,” Aung said.
“We believe that it is highly possible that air quality will return to usual higher levels as people shift towards resuming their normal pre-pandemic activities,” Aung added. “We hope that our research will have implications for greater support of clean energy technologies to reduce air pollution levels.”
Other experts have taken an interest in the study and noted the potentially innovative effect it could have on the fight against air pollution. Dr. Joel Kaufman, who was the chair of the American Heart Association’s 2020 response to air pollution, stated:
“If these results hold up, it reinforces the benefits of air pollution reduction as a cost-effective way to improve health.
“It also means that reducing fossil fuel combustion — which we need to do anyway, to combat climate change — might mean tremendous health benefits now, even if the climate benefits take a few years to accrue,” Kaufman added.