You don’t smoke, exercise every day, and watch your fat and salt content like a hawk. But there’s one risk factor that you probably haven’t thought twice about, and you should: It’s air pollution, which new studies show can be toxic to your heart. Fine particulate air matter pollution—the kind emitted from motor vehicles, factories, fires, and smoking—causes damage to blood vessels and inflammation in otherwise young healthy adults, according to a study published this past October in the American Heart Association medical journal Circulation Research.
“We’ve known for a while that there’s a strong association between [pollution and] dying of heart disease, particularly heart attack and stroke, for some time, but we’d only seen it before in the very sick and/or elderly, people who would most likely have died soon anyway,” says Aruni Bhatnagar, PhD, study co-author and professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. “But the fact that we’re seeing these changes in otherwise healthy individuals suggests that it affects all of us, even if we don’t have any other risk factors.” (Heal your whole body with Rodale’s 12-day liver detox for total body health.)
This isn’t the first study linking polluted city life to heart disease. Last May, an Israeli study found that people exposed to higher than average levels of air particulates over the prior 3 months had higher blood sugar levels and worse cholesterol levels (higher “bad” LDL and lower “good” HDL) compared to those who were exposed to lower levels of pollutants.
These findings may sound scary, but there are things you can do to reduce exposure and thus your heart disease risk, reassures Bhatnagar. Here are 6 proactive steps to take:
- Reduce travelling during rush hour. If you must be on the road during prime time, keep your car’s windows closed and use the air recirculation setting. (Air out your car periodically to avoid drowsiness from the build-up of exhaled carbon dioxide.)
- Since you’re most likely to be exposed to fine particulate air matter indoors when you’re cooking, use an exhaust fan that vents to the outdoors anytime you use your stove.
- Use an electric or gas stove and heater instead of a wood stove or fireplace. If you must have a roaring fire blazing, use “seasoned” (dry) wood.
- Steer clear of air fresheners and cleaning products with a pine or citrus scent, since they can react with ozone in the air to form particles.
- Install a high-efficiency filter in your central forced air system at home, which can trap microscopic particles. If you don’t have central air, invest in a portable high-efficiency air cleanser.
- Check current air quality levels for your city at airnow.gov, and try to stay indoors when outdoor pollution levels are high, suggests Jennifer Haythe, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in NYC. If you must be outside, avoid exercising, especially around high traffic areas like busy roads or highways.