Soil pollution could be a hidden cause of heart disease, study warns

SOPHIA ANTIPOLIS, France — Soil pollution may be just as bad for your heart as it is for the planet, a new study warns. Researchers in Germany say any link between heart disease and soil is likely due to pesticides and heavy metals left in the ground.

The team adds pollutants in soil could be damaging our hearts by causing inflammation and disrupting our body clocks. Soil pollution could also be causing heart disease by raising oxidative stress, which leads to more free radicals in the body, which cause chain reactions that damage other cells. It also leads to the body containing fewer antioxidants, which help to clean out radicals.

The team says the risk is so great people should wear masks outside to avoid damaging their heart when soil is blowing around in the wind. They note the problem is particularly acute in poorer and middle-income countries but is an issue everywhere because of the interconnected nature of global supply chains.

For their study, the team looked at existing studies about the topic to draw wider conclusions. Existing research has found a link between pesticides and a higher risk of heart disease. Studies have also found links between high lead levels and heart disease – which includes coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke among women and people with diabetes.

Other studies have suggested arsenic — which can appear in contaminated water — can cause heart disease as well. Researchers also uncovered a Korean study which connects cadmium, found in small amounts in air, water, soil, and food, with stroke and high blood pressure.

A windy day could send you to the hospital

Study authors say even dust from deserts could be damaging people’s hearts when wind sweeps particles away, sending them long distances to big cities and towns. People in Japan were 21 percent more likely to end up in a hospital on days when desert dust from China and Mongolia was in the air. Pollution of air, water, and soil is responsible for at least nine million deaths each year, according to estimates.

Soil contamination is a less obvious danger to human health than dirty air, but more than 60 percent of pollution-related disease is due to cardiovascular issues such as chronic heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, and heart rhythm disorders.

Dirty soil can enter the body when we inhale desert dust, fertilizer crystals, or plastic particles. Heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, plastics, and organic toxicants (like in pesticides) can also enter the body orally. Soil pollutants also wash into rivers and create dirty water which people can end up drinking.

People working in the agricultural and chemical industries are at the highest risk, but anyone can ingest pesticides from contaminated food, soil, and water.

Heavy metals may be in your food too

“Soil contamination is a less visible danger to human health than dirty air,” says study author Professor Thomas Münzel of the University Medical Center Mainz in a media release. “But evidence is mounting that pollutants in soil may damage cardiovascular health through a number of mechanisms including inflammation and disrupting the body’s natural clock.”

“Although soil pollution with heavy metals and its association with cardiovascular diseases is especially a problem low- and middle-income countries since their populations are disproportionately exposed to these environmental pollutants, it becomes a problem for any country in the world due to the increasing globalization of food supply chains and uptake of these heavy metals with fruits, vegetables and meat,” the researchers continue.

“More studies are needed on the combined effect of multiple soil pollutants on cardiovascular disease since we are rarely exposed to one toxic agent alone. Research is urgently required on how nano- and microplastic might initiate and exacerbate cardiovascular disease. Until we know more, it seems sensible to wear a face mask to limit exposure to windblown dust, filter water to remove contaminants, and buy food grown in healthy soil.”

The findings are published in the journal Cardiovascular Research.

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.

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