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Air Pollution & Heart Disease in African Americans

May 23rd, 2018

African Americans have higher rates of heart disease than whites do, and exposure to air pollution may be partly to blame. Western Pennsylvania has some of the worst outdoor air pollution in the country due to emissions from industrial sources and roadway traffic, and data show that racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in areas close to these pollution sources. Previous research has shown that exposure to air pollution increases the risk for serious health problems including heart disease, cancer, and asthma.

In new research published in the American Heart Association journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, lead author Sebhat Erqou, MD, PhD, and his team assessed heart health and air pollution exposure in 1,717 participants (66 percent women, 45 percent African American, average age 59) living in Western Pennsylvania. Researchers were particularly interested in two types of air pollution called fine particulate matter and black carbon. Fine particulate matter is made up of liquid droplets and solid particles like dust, dirt, and smoke; black carbon is the sooty black material emitted from some diesel-powered vehicles and coal-fired power plants. Both types of air pollution can be inhaled deep into the lungs, and some very small particles can travel into the bloodstream.

Researchers reported that for all participants, exposure to fine particulate matter was associated with higher blood glucose, worse blood vessel function, cardiovascular events, and death from any cause. African Americans in our region had significantly higher exposures to air pollution, as well as a 45 percent higher risk of heart-related health events and death from any cause. About 25 percent of the association between race, cardiovascular events, and death may be explained by exposure to fine particulate matter pollutants, though no similar link was found with black carbon. More studies are needed to better understand the relationship between air pollution, race, and health outcomes.

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