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EPA Science Matters Newsletter: Clean Air, Healthy Hearts, Longer Lives

Published October 2014

EPA research supports actions to extend the positive impacts of cleaner air to everyone, continuing a forty-year legacy of human health achievement.

“While we have made tremendous strides reducing air pollution levels since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, there are still 120 million people in the country living in areas that still don’t meet today’s clean air standards. And we’ve been able—through sensitive testing procedures, evaluations, and risk assessments—to see that there are people who are still vulnerable to health effects, especially from low levels of pollution over long periods of time,” says EPA clean air researcher Dan Costa, Sc.D., DABT

Costa, the National Program Director for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy research program, is leading efforts to provide the scientific information, innovative tools, and models that the Agency and local communities need to take action to better protect the health of those 120 million people.

A priority is to ensure that the benefits of the science help even the most vulnerable among us, including our youngest and oldest citizens, and those already at risk to air pollution-related health effects due to conditions such as compromised cardiovascular systems, diabetes, or other ailments.  

One such initiative is the Agency’s Healthy Heart program, an environmental health education and outreach effort to raise awareness among healthcare providers and those who have heart disease of the importance of minimizing exposure to poor air quality. The goal is to spread the word about how air pollution can worsen cardiovascular health and even trigger heart attacks for certain people already at risk.  

“We want to make sure people know how to find information about their local air quality so that they can make the best decisions about when—and when not—to be outside. For example, people can use the Air Quality Index (AQI) and Enviroflash websites to check the air quality in their area and plan activities to reduce exposure to air pollution on bad air days,” explains Dr. Wayne Cascio, a cardiologist who heads the Agency’s Environmental Public Health Division.

The effort stems from a growing body of EPA and partner research illuminating the importance of air quality for cardiovascular health.

One recent study, for example, found that combinations of air pollutants can cause significantly greater health risks than exposures to single pollutants. Other recent studies show links between exposure to ground-level ozone and cardiovascular effects and that controlling high blood pressure may reduce cardiovascular and pulmonary system impacts from long-term exposure to diesel exhaust.

Such findings are the driving forces behind Healthy Heart and other Agency efforts to ensure clean air research results reach those who need them the most. Another promising area includes investigations exploring the role air pollution may have on metabolic syndrome, a group of health factors that raises the risk for heart disease and other problems, such as diabetes and stroke.

A 2013 study by EPA researchers found that both young and old laboratory animals experienced temporary glucose intolerance and high blood pressure after short-term exposure to ozone. The results indicate the importance of studying multiple age groups to learn more about the potential for air pollution to contribute to the development of metabolic diseases.  

Other related findings by EPA-funded researchers include links between exposure to coarse particulate matter in the air and an increase in the production of endothelial progenitor cells, which is a cellular indicator of metabolic changes. Such changes are related to increased risks for such health problems as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Another study showed that obese lab animals (rodents) exposed to concentrated air pollutants and ozone experienced inflammation and stress in the fat surrounding the heart and kidneys, another potential clue to the link between air pollution and metabolic syndrome.

Such findings are adding to a 40-year legacy of EPA clean air research in support of the landmark Clean Air Act. Collectively, that body of work has provided the foundation for actions taken under the Act that have had significant and far-reaching impacts for public health across the nation.

One of the most cited is perhaps the most important public health impact that can be measured: longer life spans. EPA-funded researchers exploring the benefits of cleaner air found that those living in a handful of urban areas where air quality has improved the most have experienced a five-month increase in life expectancy.

Agency researchers and their partners are working to advance the science and engineering needed to continue that progress and to help ensure it reaches even our most vulnerable citizens.

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