Breathing in air pollution can lead to an irregular heartbeat, study warns

SHANGHAI, China — If you feel your heart skipping a beat, blame the air around you. A new study finds air pollution can contribute to a condition called arrhythmia, where patients experience irregular heartbeats. Two types of arrhythmias are atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter. If left untreated, both may lead to blood clots or heart disease.

According to the American Heart Association, heart disease affected an estimated 244 million people worldwide in 2020. While some causes, like genetics, are harder to alter, people can change how they interact with hazardous pollutants that increase their risk for cardiovascular problems.

Strong evidence links air pollution to heart disease, but little is known about its effects on arrhythmia. The current study looked to find a potential link between the two. They gathered medical data of patients in 2,025 hospitals in 322 Chinese cities that showed sudden symptoms of arrhythmia. The team recorded air quality levels from monitoring stations near those hospitals.

There were 190,115 people with sudden-onset symptomatic arrhythmia. This included people diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter, premature beats starting in the atria or ventricles of the heart, and supraventricular tachycardia.

“We found that acute exposure to ambient air pollution was associated with increased risk of symptomatic arrhythmia,” says Renjie Chen, a researcher at Fudan University, in a media release. “The risks occurred during the first several hours after exposure and could persist for 24 hours. The exposure–response relationships between 6 pollutants and 4 subtypes of arrhythmias were approximately linear without discernable thresholds of concentrations.”

Scroll down to see 3 other health problems air pollution may cause

Atrial fibrillation, irregular heartbeat
(© ibreakstock –

Breathing in the air from areas with high air pollution levels displayed the strongest association with atrial flutter and supraventricular tachycardia, followed by atrial fibrillation and premature beats. Among six pollutants, nitrogen dioxide had the strongest association with all four types of heart issues. The more exposure patients had to air pollutants, the stronger the link to arrhythmias.

“Although the exact mechanisms are not yet fully understood, the association between air pollution and acute onset of arrhythmia that we observed is biologically plausible,” the study authors write. “Some evidence has indicated that air pollution alters cardiac electrophysiological activities by inducing oxidative stress and systemic inflammation, affecting multiple membrane channels, as well as impairing autonomic nervous function.”

The findings give one more reason why air pollution is a life-threatening issue. Researchers add it also emphasizes how it needs to be a top priority globally, including the creation of measures that protect people most at risk from heavy pollution.

The study is published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Air pollution may also be the cause of 3 other conditions

Dementia: People living near busy roadways are much more likely to develop dementia, a recent study warns. Researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health say even exposure to small amounts of air pollution below current safety limits fuels cognitive decline.

Sources of fine particulate matter exposure include diesel fumes, wood smoke, brake pads, tires, and road dust. The EPA’s current annual regulatory standard is 12 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). However, results of this study suggest an alarming 42-percent greater risk of dementia for every two µg/m3 increase in average concentrations.

Obesity: Scientists at the University of Michigan report middle-aged women exposed to smog may be more likely to experience weight gain and develop a higher body mass index, a larger waist circumference, and more body fat. A group of older, middle-aged women who experienced long-term exposure to air pollution tended to gain more weight, study authors say.

“Women in their late 40s and early 50s exposed long-term to air pollution — specifically, higher levels of fine particles, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone — saw increases in their body size and composition measures,” reports first study author Xin Wang, an epidemiology research investigator at the U-M School of Public Health, in a university release.

Rheumatoid arthritis: Breathing in dust and fumes from different vapors, gases, and solvents that are common in the workplace may increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, a recent study warns. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that causes autoimmune joint pain and inflammation, affecting up to one in a hundred people worldwide.

The team found that almost three-quarters of those with rheumatoid arthritis testing positive (73%) and negative (72%) for anti-citrullinated protein antibodies ACPA were exposed to at least one of the workplace dusts or fumes compared with around 67 percent of those in the control group.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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