Short-Term Exposure To Air Pollution Now Closely Linked To Stroke, Heart Attacks

By Blake Z. Rong | February 17, 2012
Ask your father (or, for that matter, our news director Keith Buglewicz) about what it was like growing up in Los Angeles back in the day, and he'll tell you of days of smog alerts and brown skies, and of skipping school because it was painful to breathe outside. The health risks were less known then, but like today's skies, they're much clearer: around the world air pollution kills, and nowhere is that more startling than in Los Angeles. Scientists found that across five continents, breathing heavily polluted air for less than a week increased the risk of a heart attack. The published study revealed that the heart is most vulnerable to airborne pollutants, and unlike in past studies, this one showed that it doesn't take months or years for smog to detract from human health—just a short duration of exposure, like a day, could adversely affect health. "It always seems to come out that air pollutants are associated with premature deaths," said Jean Ospital, health effects officer at the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "And as the testing becomes more sophisticated, we find more effects at lower levels." Los Angeles, despite decades of improvements, is still a place where its inhabitants are at risk. Those that live in the Southland are more likely to suffer strokes and memory loss—even at levels deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. With levels of "moderate" exposure to smog, there was a 34 percent greater chance that somebody would suffer a stroke. And the effects didn't take long to get noticed: within 12 to 14 hours of exposure, health risks shot up. The stroke data was recorded in Boston, but Los Angeles topped the nation in smog levels in 2011. More than 30 metropolitan areas in America still exceed EPA guidelines for clean air, with high levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, coarse particles and other scary-sounding stuff. The dirt in our air accumulates near places with heavy traffic, and Los Angeles is nothing if not known for its always-congested freeways. The EPA is due to review its standards this year, as it does every five years. The current administration has put a damper on implementing tighter restrictions as a nod to industry, but those who study the effects of air pollution have some blunt statements on the urgency of making our air cleaner, and our lives safer. “Our governing board is very keenly interested in these studies, and it has wholly or partially funded dozens of studies, including the way in which very tiny particles can enter the bloodstream and enter the brain,” says Sam Atwood, a spokesman for theAir Quality Management District. “This is just further confirmation that we’re on the right track and we need to accelerate our cleanup efforts." "Just because we can see the mountains better than we could 40 years ago, that doesn’t mean that the air is safe.” Sources: Environmental Health News, Los Angeles Times, Wikimedia Commons