Does noise and air pollution affect the risk of cardiovascular disease?

Does noise and air pollution affect the risk of cardiovascular disease?
Image credit: Max Milne/Getty Images

A recent opinion article argues that in mitigating cardiovascular-related deaths, reducing air and noise pollution is key.

Noise and air pollution
Image credit: Max Milne/Getty Images

An international expert team claims in the piece that there is compelling evidence that air and noise emissions are related to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

The article published in the European Heart Journal, identifies a variety of techniques that can help minimize the impact on cardiovascular health that air and noise pollution can have.

Cardiovascular health and pollution

Every year, 17.9 million people die of cardiovascular disease worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This makes it the leading cause of mortality worldwide.

The WHO describes cardiovascular disease as an umbrella term for a series of conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels of a person. A heart attack or stroke causes four out of every five deaths due to cardiovascular disease.

Genetics can make a person more vulnerable to cardiovascular disease, research has shown. Ecological factors, however, which an individual may be able to act on also play an important role.

Key environmental drivers of cardiovascular disease include an unhealthy diet, low physical activity levels, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption, according to the WHO.

However more recently, research has been carried out by scientists that seems to suggest a correlation between environmental pollutants and cardiovascular disease. Both air and noise emissions contain these.

In this paper the authors argue that it is important to resolve these sources of pollution to reduce mortality from cardiovascular diseases.

Growing evidence

The authors agree that while evidence of ties between air and noise pollution and cardiovascular disease is growing, it is more difficult to understand the precise effects of each cause. This is in part because the same problems also cause air and noise pollution.

A busy road, for instance, contributes to a large amount of noise from the touch of the wheels of the vehicles and the surface of the road. Meanwhile the combustion engines and braking wear of the vehicles can generate a significant amount of particulate air pollution.

It is difficult to untangle the two variables to better understand how much each contributes to damaging cardiovascular health.

Nevertheless the authors highlight a European Commission study that estimates that air and noise pollution, significantly more than alcohol and smoking, could cost Europe about 1 trillion euros.

Global premature deaths due to air pollution have been reported at almost 9 million in another piece of research highlighted in the paper.

And a WHO study found that road traffic noise raises the risk of ischemic heart disease by 8 percent for every 10 decibels of noise in a person.

Potential mechanisms

The authors of the article indicate that noise pollution, whether awake or asleep, can impact the cardiovascular health of a person.

Noise pollution can make an individual feel irritated or angry during waking hours, causing stress. Increased oxidative stress and inflammation can result in this which can affect cardiovascular health.

Noise pollution, on the other hand, can interrupt sleep cycles, which are critical for cardiovascular health.

The authors emphasize that air pollution in a variety of ways can also cause cardiovascular harm. These involve stiffening of the arteries and increased blood coagulability in the short term, and plaque accumulation of blood vessels in the longer term.

Dr. Thomas Münzel, head of the cardiology department at the Johannes Gutenberg University Medical Center in Mainz, Germany, claims that reducing air emissions to WHO-recommended levels, mainly by phasing out fossil fuels, could avoid around 400,000-500,000 excess European deaths.

Pollution mitigation

More focus must be put on finding efficient ways to reduce these contaminants, considering the adverse effects of these environmental pollutants, the authors argue.

Of course, the most productive way of mitigating noise emissions depends on its source.

The authors state that the solutions available to individuals and local governments have a marginal impact on themselves. As a result, they suggest that in areas more heavily affected by noise pollution, multiple measures are required.

These could involve installing windows that reduce noise, using quieter road surfaces and low-noise tires, lowering speed limits, and installing barriers that reduce noise.

The authors also report that government action is the most significant way to reduce air pollution. “The political impetus needed to achieve this globally, however is presently small,” they observe.

Consequently, in addition to electing governments which take environmental pollution more seriously, they highlight actions that individuals can take.

These activities include wearing masks such as N95 respirators, which are meant to eliminate toxic particles from the air, prevent and exercise routes through heavily polluted areas.

However, currently, N95 respirators are not approved for general use by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as these are vital supplies during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic for healthcare staff and other medical first responders.

The authors of the article stress that even though it takes a person through a polluted environment, exercise is necessary because the benefits of the exercise are very likely to outweigh the harm caused by air pollution. However if a person has a choice, the best choice is to exercise away from polluted areas.

The authors also propose that it is possible to reduce both air and noise emissions by improved urban design.

This involves the creation of housing and urban areas that facilitate walking, cycling and the use of public transport and ensure that urban developments have a lot of greenery, but preserve proximity and compactness.

Finally, the authors note that it is important to increase the information of the investigations into the relationship between environmental pollution and cardiovascular disease.

Clinicians, foundations, interest groups and individuals are in the strongest position to persuade governments and international organisations to implement structural reform by providing the most credible and reliable data possible.