Vacationing in busy, polluted cities for just 5 days could shorten your life

MINNEAPOLIS — A weekend in a big city can be fun for any tourist, but a new study suggests that even a brief city escape could raise your risk of suffering a stroke. The cause? Heightened exposure to air pollution.

Researchers at the University of Jordan in Amman synthesized data from over 18 million stroke cases, examining whether exposure to polluted air for just five days might elevate stroke risk. Their results reveal a correlation between higher levels of pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and varying sizes of particulate matter and a heightened stroke risk. Simply put, the toxins that fill busy roadways in cities all over the world could put you at higher risk for a fatal medical condition within a week.

This comprehensive study underscored a concerning observation: as pollution levels rose, so did the likelihood of stroke-induced death.

To clarify, nitrogen dioxide — primarily produced from burning fossil fuels at high temperatures — displayed a link with a 33-percent surge in stroke-related mortality. Meanwhile, a significant 60-percent increase in death risk was associated with higher sulphur dioxide levels, a byproduct of burning sulphur-rich fuels.

“Previous research has established a connection between long-term exposure to air pollution and an increased risk of stroke,” says study lead Dr. Ahmad Toubasi from the University of Jordan, in a media release. “For our study, instead of looking at weeks or months of exposure, we looked at just five days and found a link between short-term exposure to air pollution and an increased risk of stroke.”

Broadway Theatre District in New York City
Broadway Theatre District in New York City (Photo by Florian Wehde on Unsplash)

The study authors meticulously evaluated different sizes of particulate matter, from PM1 (tiny pollutants less than one micron in diameter) to larger ones like PM2.5 and PM10. Smaller particles, such as PM2.5, typically arise from motor emissions, industrial fuel burning, and natural fires, while the more substantial PM10 particles are commonly dust from roads or construction projects.

Here’s a breakdown of the associated risks:

  • Nitrogen dioxide: 28% increased stroke risk
  • Ozone levels: 5% surge
  • Carbon monoxide: 26% rise
  • Sulphur dioxide: 15% escalation
  • PM1 levels: 9% rise in stroke risk, PM2.5: 15%, and PM10: 14%. Specifically, for death due to stroke, PM2.5 exhibited a 9% increase and PM10 a 2%

“There is a strong and significant association between air pollution and the occurrence of stroke as well as death from stroke within five days of exposure,” emphasizes Dr. Toubasi. “This highlights the importance of global efforts to create policies that reduce air pollution. Doing so may reduce the number of strokes and their consequences.”

The research team concedes that their study has certain limitations, mainly that their meta-analysis predominantly encompasses data from affluent nations. Data from countries with moderate to low incomes, which might experience even higher pollution levels, remains sparse.

The study is published in the journal Neurology.

You might also be interested in: 

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

YouTube video