BYU professor says new study sheds light on health risks of air pollution

PROVO, Utah – A new study out of the American Heart Association’s Journal of Circulation Research shows how air pollutants cause more than respiratory problems like asthma and COPD, but also damage blood vessels.

“We found that air pollution increases the risk of cardiovascular disease including heart attacks,” said the study’s author, Dr. Arden Pope, an economics professor at Brigham Young University. “This study focused on looking at fine particulate air pollution blood markers of systemic information, and blood markers of vascular injury.”

Dr. Pope worked with colleagues at the University of Louisville to collect the results. They used young people’s blood draws, including BYU students, during high and low exposure to inversions in Utah.

“What this tells us, is that this air pollution can influence young healthy individuals and may contribute to cardiovascular disease as we have prolonged exposure over our lives,” Dr. Pope said.

Their results include:

  • Small, micro-particles indicating cell injury and death significantly increased
  • Levels of proteins that inhibit blood-vessel growth increased
  • Proteins that signify blood-vessel inflammation also showed significant increases

“Even in young healthy individuals, we saw evidence that increased exposure to air pollution increased the risk of having vascular injury,” Dr. Pope said.

A clean air group called “Breathe Utah” fights for more funding for the Department of Environmental Quality and said it plans to use this new study in its future endeavors.

“Breathe Utah is excited about the study linking air pollution to blood vessel damage,” said Ashely Miller, a Breathe Utah Program Manager. “We are eager to learn more from the study and believe it will be a valuable resource to our organization's efforts to find solutions that will work for Utah to improve our air. One of our top priorities for the upcoming legislative session is to fully fund the Division of Air Quality for their need to expand and improve the State's air quality monitoring equipment, including replacing old monitors and placing new monitors in more locations throughout Utah."

Miller said the risks posed by pollution make it important to keep working toward changes.

"We are familiar with how people with multiple risk factors are in danger of heart attack and stroke during episodes of air pollution," she said. "We are familiar with children's hospitalizations going up for respiratory complications, but research now shows us that healthy people are affected by air pollution too. Air pollution is so much better than it used to be, but we can't get complacent. We have to keep at it.”