Air pollution causes irregular heartbeat almost immediately

Nitrogen dioxide was found to cause the most problems

Exposure to air pollution almost immediately increases the risk of heart rhythm problems, a study has found.

Researchers discovered 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. 

The study was based on data from more than 2,000 Chinese hospitals and air-quality data from nearby monitoring stations. It included more than 190,000 patients with heart rhythm problems.

“We found that acute exposure to ambient air pollution was associated with increased risk of symptomatic arrhythmia,” said Dr Renjie Chen of the School of Public Health at Fudan University in Shanghai. “The risks occurred during the first several hours after exposure and could persist for 24 hours.”

He said the risk of rhythm irregularities — which also included premature beats and supraventricular tachycardia, when the heart beats abnormally fast — appeared to rise in line with increased concentrations of pollutants.

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

“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,” said Chen.

The new report adds to evidence linking air pollution with an increased risk of heart and circulatory diseases

The new report adds to evidence linking air pollution with an increased risk of heart and circulatory diseases

Some evidence has indicated that air pollution alters cardiac electrophysiological activities by inducing oxidative stress and systemic inflammation, affecting multiple membrane channels, as well as impairing autonomic nervous function.”

He added: “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.”

The Clean Air for All campaign, launched by The Times in 2019, is calling for tighter pollution limits in the UK based on World Health Organisation guidelines.

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.

“Whilst it is true that air pollution in China and India are 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.”

The paper was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Campaigners are calling for the right to clean air to be legally enshrined in the UK with a law named after nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died in 2013 after an asthma attack brought on by inhaling traffic fumes. She is the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.

Earlier a comprehensive review of the impact of air pollution, conducted by researchers at Imperial College London, found that air pollution harmed people throughout their lives, beginning while they were still in the womb. The review, which drew on 35,000 studies published over the past decade, concluded that there was no safe level of traffic fumes.

Article by Kat Lay, Health Editor, Times London