Polluted Air Increases the Risk of AFib

When California wildfires started raging out of control, cardiac arrests went up 70 percent. It makes sense, as 91 million metric tons of carbon dioxide were released into the air, causing headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and increased heart rate. Sure, air filled with dirt and chemicals is harmful to breathe; that much is clear. But can air pollution really cause heart problems? Even when you can’t see it? Read on to find out.

What’s in the air you’re breathing?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution kills 7 million people each year. Air pollution is a mix of solid particles and gases suspended in the air. These particles and gases come from cars, trucks, factories, smokestacks, dust, pollen, mold spores, and wildfires.

Smog is worse during the hot summer months when there’s more ultraviolet radiation. Thanks to damp conditions caused by extreme weather and increased flooding, allergenic air pollutants, including mold and pollen, are on the rise. So, what does this mean for your heart health? Can environmental factors cause heart palpitations? Unfortunately, yes.

Older adults or anyone at risk of heart disease, AFib, or stroke should avoid short-term exposure to air polluted with particulate matter and vehicle exhaust. 

Can bad air cause AFib?

Some air pollutants are so dangerous that inhaling them increases your risk of heart problems. In fact, people with heart or lung disease are at greater risk for heart palpitations.  One study that looked at air pollution and AFib found that even short-term exposure was enough to cause atrial fibrillation for those with known cardiac disease. Whether it was pollution produced by natural processes or humans, the result was the same. Participants experienced an AFib episode within hours of exposure.

If you have AFib, could air pollution cause a stroke?

A study published in the journal JAMA found that people with AFib have a higher risk of stroke when exposed to poor air quality. Researchers used monitors mounted to telephone poles at 37 sites around a town in Pennsylvania, USA. They measured the levels of fine particulate matter in the air and used this to aid in their conclusions.

Over 31,000 people with AFib took part in the study, which began in 2007. In fact, it was the most extensive study to monitor pollution in a specific area. Between artificial pollution and factories, PA is one of the most polluted states in America. The data allowed researchers to link air pollution and the risk of stroke in AFib patients.

What is fine particulate matter?

Many small soot particles are floating around in the air. Particulate matter contains tiny, microscopic objects or liquid droplets. They cause serious health problems when inhaled, with small particles even lodging deep into the lungs and bloodstream.  The risk is greatest among people with lung disease, asthma, chronic obstructive lung disease, and heart disease.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, less than 2.5 microns in diameter, is the most dangerous. That’s basically less than a third the diameter of a human hair. When inhaled, these tiny particles can trigger strokes or even heart attacks. PM2.5 comes from industrial sources, including power plants, factories, and vehicles. 

Can air pollution cause heart palpitations?

It seems so. Furthermore, pollution can push people with AFib to have a stroke. During AFib, the heart quivers instead of beating normally to move blood into the ventricles. If a clot breaks and lodges into an artery that leads to the brain, it causes a stroke. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with AFib already have a five times greater chance of having a stroke than those without AFib. Plus, about 20 percent of people who have strokes also have AFib.

What happens to the heart during short-term exposure to air pollution?

California’s deadly wildfires vaporized trees along with manufactured objects like electronics, cars, and appliances. The chemicals and particles from the melted objects blanketed the northern part of the state for months. Almost all of Northern California was under a poor air quality advisory. Hospital emergency rooms filled with people suffering from asthma, heart attacks, stroke, and other cardiovascular events. 

Inhaling polluted air during the recent wildfires in California raised the risk of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests by 70 percent, suggests a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. The study examined heart attacks in 14 wildfire-affected counties in California.

When inhaled, particulate matter from smoke penetrates deeply into the lungs. Very small particles can cross into the bloodstream. These particles create an inflammatory reaction in the lungs and throughout the body. The body’s defense system activates a fight-or-flight response. This increases heart rate, constricting blood vessels and increasing blood pressure. Studies suggest that when the body goes into fight or flight mode, AFib is triggered.

How to avoid short-term exposure

Several studies indicate that short-term exposure to particulate matter is linked with an increased risk of AFib. The best way to protect yourself from exposure is to monitor your outside air — particularly if you live in a heavily polluted area.

If you believe your outdoor air quality is pretty good, keep in mind that particles can travel thousands of miles downwind. Air pollution may affect you even if you’re far from the source. According to the EPA, even time spent in traffic is linked with AFib and heart attack. Although, beyond traffic-related air pollution, stress from traffic could also factor in.

Use a quality air purification system in your house to help ensure your indoor air is free of pollutants. 

Use an air quality alert

Protect yourself and others from pollution that reaches harmful levels with a free online air quality alert. AirNow is a tool that can tell you how clean or polluted the outdoor air is in your zip code, city, or state. AirNow has an Air Quality Index (AQI) that decodes air quality data into numbers and colors that can help you understand when to take action to protect your health. 

Next steps

When it comes to AFib, be your own best advocate. The truth is, environmental factors can cause heart palpitations. Lessen your risk of AFib by protecting yourself from short-term exposure to air pollution. Remember, it is impossible to avoid all pollution all the time. Consider an environmental toxins panel test to asses your toxic burden. Knowing your toxic burden will allow you to work with a holistic healthcare professional to develop a personalized detox strategy and heal your heart.

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Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD

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