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Air pollution accelerates atherosclerosis

Posted Feb 13 2010 12:00am

Exposure to air pollution accelerates the thickening of artery walls in humans that leads to cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis, according to researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC).

The study, funded across six components of the National Institutes of Health, was published recently in the journal PloS ONE. It is the first to link outdoor air quality and progression of atherosclerosis in humans. Researchers found that artery wall thickening among people living within 100 meters (328 feet) of a Los Angeles highway progressed twice as quickly as those who lived farther away.

“The fact that we can detect progression of atherosclerosis in relation to ambient air pollution above and beyond other well-established risk factors indicates that environmental factors may play a larger role in the risk for cardiovascular disease than previously suspected,” says study co-author Howard N. Hodis, M.D., director of the Atherosclerosis Research Unit and professor of medicine and preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine.

Atherosclerosis - or stiffening and calcification of arteries - is a condition that leads to heart attacks, stroke and related deaths. Animal studies conducted in recent years have shown that inhalation of particulate matter from traffic and other sources accelerates atherosclerosis, but there has previously been very little study of these effects on humans.

“Until now, no study has ever investigated whether the slow but chronic process of the development of atherosclerosis would be affected by ambient air pollution,” says study principal investigator Nino Kuenzil, M.D., Ph.D., vice-director of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute.

The findings were based on five randomized controlled trials conducted by investigators at the USC Atherosclerosis Research Unit during the past decade, which involved linking the measured effects of outside air pollution to the progression of atherosclerosis in 1,483 participants in the Los Angeles area. Colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley developed novel spatial models and air pollution measurements to estimate particulate matter all across Southern California, and to estimate proximity from participants’ homes to high exposure zones near highways and traffic corridors.

The investigators found that annual progression of artery wall thickness among those living within 100 meters of a highway was accelerated by 5.5 micrometers a year, more than twice the average progression of people who lived farther away.

The findings support emerging evidence that high-traffic corridors are unhealthy residential locations, researchers said.

With funding from the National Institutes of Health, the investigators have launched two large studies examining the risk of ambient air pollution in the early development of atherosclerosis in children and young adults where cardiovascular risk factor is low, Hodis says.

“Should studies in children and young adults support our current findings in adult populations concerning ambient air pollution and atherosclerosis risk, the public health implications and preventive strategies for further reducing cardiovascular disease will have global implications for both developed as well as developing industrial nations,” he says (Newswise).

The complete article is available online free here:

Reference: Nino Kunzli, et al. “Ambient Air Pollution and the Progression of Atherosclerosis in Adults.” PloS ONE 5(2): e9096. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009096

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