Healthy living

Diesel fumes increase heart attack risk

Diesel fumes increase heart attack risk Ultrafine particles to blame

Tiny chemical particles in diesel exhaust fumes could increase the risk of a heart attack, research has shown.

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh found that ultrafine particles produced by burning diesel can increase the chances of blood clots forming in arteries, leading to a heart attack or stroke.

In the study, researchers measured the impact of diesel exhaust fumes on healthy volunteers, at levels similar to those found in heavily polluted cities.

They compared how people reacted to the gases found in diesel fumes – such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide – with those caused by the ultrafine chemical particles from exhausts.

The findings showed that the tiny chemical particles - not the gases - impaired the function of blood vessels that control how blood is channelled to the body's organs.

However, the particles, which are less that a millionth of a metre wide, are able to be filtered out of exhaust emissions by fitting specialised particle traps.

Dr Mark Miller, of the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Cardiovascular Science, said: "While many people tend to think of the effects of air pollution in terms of damage to the lungs, there is strong evidence that it has an impact on the heart and blood vessels as well.

"Our research shows that while both gases and particles can affect our blood pressure, it is actually the minuscule chemical particles that are emitted by car exhausts that are really harmful.

"These particles produce highly reactive molecules called free radicals that can injure our blood vessels and lead to vascular disease.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, which funded the research, added: "We've known for a long time that air pollution is a major heart health issue and that's why we're funding this team in Edinburgh to continue their vital research.

"Their findings suggest that lives could be saved by cutting these harmful nanoparticles out of exhausts - perhaps by taking them out of the fuel, or making manufacturers add gadgets to their vehicles that can trap particles before they escape. The best approach isn't clear yet.

"For now our advice remains the same - people with heart disease should avoid spending long periods outside in areas where traffic pollution is likely to be high, such as on or near busy roads."

The results are published in the European Heart Journal.

This article was published on Thu 14 July 2011

Image © LVDESIGN@Fotolia

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