A new study has found that when people are exposed to extreme heat and high levels of particulate pollution, their risk of a fatal heart attack doubles.
(CNN) – As heat waves and wildfire smoke continue to affect parts of the United States, doctors are warning people to watch their heart health — especially if they live in areas with high pollution levels.
A new study has found that when people are exposed to extreme heat and high levels of particulate pollution, their risk of a fatal heart attack doubles. The study, published Monday in the journal Circulation, found that extreme cold also increases patients’ risk of fatal heart attacks.
The study looked at more than 202,000 heart attack deaths between 2015 and 2020 in China’s Jiangsu province. It found that there was a “significantly associated” risk of a person dying from a heart attack when temperatures were too high or too low, or when there were high levels of particulate pollution.
When extreme heat and high pollution levels combined, people faced the greatest risk of dying from heart attacks.
The elderly and women seem to be most at risk.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, particulate pollution or particulate pollution is a mixture of solid and liquid droplets suspended in the air. It can come in the form of dirt, dust, odor or smoke. Particulate pollution comes from coal and natural gas-fired plants. It can also be generated by cars, agriculture, unpaved roads, construction sites, and wildfires.
This study focused on the harm caused by the smallest particulate matter: PM2.5. It’s so small — about 1/20th the width of a human hair — that people can’t see it, and it can bypass the body’s normal defenses.
Instead of being exhaled, it can get trapped in the lungs or go into the bloodstream. Particles can cause irritation and inflammation and cause breathing problems. Prolonged exposure can cause cancer, stroke and heart attack.
On days when pollution was above 37.5 micrograms per cubic meter and the heat wave lasted four days, a person was twice as likely to die of a heart attack than normal. Cold snaps and high pollution days did not appear to have the same increase.
Extreme temperatures don’t necessarily mean the thermometer hits 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead, extreme high temperatures were considered to range from 82.6 to 97.9 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, during a two-day heat wave, the risk of dying from a heart attack was 18% higher. It was 74% higher during the four-day heat wave, when temperatures ranged from 94.8 to 109.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
On colder days, when temperatures ranged from 33.3 to 40.5 degrees Fahrenheit for two days, the risk was 4% higher.
Ultimately, researchers estimate that up to 2.8% of heart-related deaths are due to the combination of extreme temperatures and high levels of fine particulate pollution.
“Extreme temperature events are becoming more frequent, longer and more intense, and their adverse health effects are of increasing concern,” said senior author Yue Liu, associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China.
The authors argue that with higher temperatures and more cold due to the climate crisis, people need to pay more attention to the weather before going out and take proper precautions if they want to take care of their heart health.
People at risk of heart attacks in extreme temperatures — those with underlying medical conditions, the elderly, the young, and in some cases women — should stay indoors on hot, high-pollution days, the authors said.
Use an air purifier at home to reduce pollution. Use fans and air conditioners in hot weather, and if you must go outside, try to go out earlier on a cooler day and wear loose fitting, light-colored clothing.
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