Where You Live Could Have A Tremendous Impact On Your Cardiac Health

One In Ten Americans At Elevated Risk For Cardiac Disease Simply Based On Geography

The great dream of total interconnectedness amongst the majority of the people of the world has largely reached fruition in the internet age. But there was an earlier version of that dream of connection, the American dream of the highway.

The great interstate highway system had its detractors and its issues, but one thing is undeniable, highways connected Americans to one another in ways that could not even have been imagined just a hundred years previously.

But that connection comes with a price, as all things do, and only now are the real costs of highways becoming clear. A new study shows that people who live within 500 yards (about 450 meters) of a highway–about one in ten Americans–are significantly more likely to suffer from an increased risk of cardiac disease.

The Tufts University and Boston University study examined “ultrafine” pollutants from car exhaust as opposed to the larger pollutants that are usually the focus of air quality research. They found that high concentrations of such particles, which are 500 times smaller than the width of a hair–are equally as toxic as larger particles.

And while larger particles settle in the lungs, these ultrafine particles are absorbed into the bloodstream unseen, causing elevated cholesterol levels and inflammation. Ongoing exposure can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries and possibly lead to stroke or heart attack.

Controlling for age, gender, body fat, and health indicators like smoking allowed researchers to isolate the increased cardiac risk and connect it to proximity to highways.

One of the researchers, professor of public health at Tufts Don Brugge has been advocating about the danger of ultrafine particles for a long time. The recent study was something of a vindication for him.

“Most of the mortality, most of the economic impact [of these particulates] are coming from cardiovascular disease,” he is quoted as having said in 2012. “It’s not primarily asthma or lung cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that they cause 80,000 or 100,000 deaths a year in the United States, and maybe four million or more worldwide.”

In light of the new data, all eyes will be on the EPA to pass stronger national air quality standards regulating ultrafine particles. Currently the EPA regulates air pollutants, but only those as small as 2.5 microns, about 25 times bigger than ultrafine particles.

In the meantime though, there are precautions people who reside near highways can take. There are filtration systems that can be installed on windows and in air conditioning systems that can greatly reduce even ultrafine particle accumulation, by up to 35 percent.

But as is usual with cutting edge research on health issues, the poor and marginalized are most at risk–and least equipped to afford upgrades that would protect their health. We can certainly hope the EPA will respond quickly and forcefully to this new data, but perhaps we shouldn’t hold our breath on that count.


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