Cities and industrial smoke clouds the sky sunset in the form of a skull with bones, a sign of danger of air pollution and the Earth’s atmosphere

(Credit: aappp/Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — We often think of war, terrorism, and deadly diseases as the greatest threats to human life. But what if the real danger is something we encounter every day, something that’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and even in the noise that surrounds us? A new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reveals a startling truth: pollution, in all its forms, is now a greater health threat than war, terrorism, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, drugs, and alcohol combined. Specifically, researchers estimate that manmade pollutants and climate change contribute to a staggering seven million deaths globally each year.

“Every year around 20 million people worldwide die from cardiovascular disease with pollutants playing an ever-increasing role,” explains Professor Jason Kovacic, Director and CEO of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Australia, in a media release.

The findings, in a nutshell

The culprits behind this global death toll aren’t just the obvious ones like air pollution from car exhausts or factory chimneys. The study, conducted by researchers from prestigious institutions worldwide, shines a light on lesser-known villains: soil pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, and even exposure to toxic chemicals in our homes.

Think about your daily life. You wake up after a night’s sleep disrupted by the glow of streetlights and the hum of late-night traffic. On your way to work, you’re exposed to car fumes and the blaring horns of impatient drivers. At home, you might be unknowingly using products containing untested chemicals. All these factors, the study suggests, are chipping away at your heart health.

Pollutants have reached every corner of the globe and are affecting every one of us,” Prof. Kovacic warns. “We are witnessing unprecedented wildfires, soaring temperatures, unacceptable road noise and light pollution in our cities and exposure to untested toxic chemicals in our homes.”

Earth attacked by greenhouse effect air pollution, climate change
Specifically, researchers estimate that manmade pollutants and climate change contribute to a staggering 7 million deaths globally each year. (© Quality Stock Arts – stock.adobe.com)

How do these pollutants harm our hearts?

Air Pollution: When you inhale smoke from a wildfire or exhaust fumes, these toxins travel deep into your lungs, enter your bloodstream, and then circulate throughout your body. It’s like sending tiny invaders into your system, causing damage wherever they go, including your heart.

Noise and Light Pollution: Ever tried sleeping with a streetlight shining through your window or with noisy neighbors? These disruptions do more than just annoy you—they mess up your sleep patterns. Poor sleep can lead to inflammation in your body, raise your blood pressure, and even cause weight gain. All of these are risk factors for heart disease.

Extreme Heat: Think of your heart as a car engine. On a scorching hot day, your engine works harder to keep cool. Similarly, during a heatwave, your heart has to work overtime. This extra strain, coupled with dehydration and reduced blood volume from sweating, can lead to serious issues like acute kidney failure.

Chemical Exposure: Many household items — from non-stick pans to water-resistant clothing — contain chemicals that haven’t been thoroughly tested for safety. Prof. Kovacic points out, “There are hundreds of thousands of chemicals that haven’t even been tested for their safety or toxicity, let alone their impact on our health.”

The statistics are alarming. Air pollution alone is linked to over seven million premature deaths per year, with more than half due to heart problems. During heatwaves, the risk of heat-related cardiovascular deaths can spike by over 10%. In the U.S., exposure to wildfire smoke has surged by 77% since 2002.

Researchers propose several solutions:

  1. Heart-Healthy Cities: More trees, safer bike lanes, and fewer cars can make our urban areas better for our hearts.
  2. Clean Energy: By ending subsidies to fossil fuel industries and investing more in renewables, we can make our air cleaner.
  3. Public Awareness: We need campaigns to educate people about the dangers of pollution, much like we’ve done with smoking.
  4. Better Medical Training: Doctors need to be more aware of how different pollutants affect heart health.

Prof. Kovacic envisions a future where we’re routinely tested for various pollutants, just as children in the U.S. are currently tested for lead exposure. However, the study author says change needs to happen now.

“Urgent action is required as climate change strides forward and pollution infiltrates the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the places we live in,” the researchers write.

StudyFinds Editor Chris Melore contributed to this report.

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