How Ultra-fine Pollution Particles (UFPs) Can Trigger Non-Fatal Heart Attacks

Worsening quality of air around the world could soon be a greater challenge than estimated impacting millions of lives throughout the world.

Worsening quality of air around the world could soon be a greater challenge than estimated.
Worsening quality of air around the world could soon be a greater challenge than estimated.

Just a few hours of exposure to ultrafine particles in air pollution can trigger a nonfatal heart attack known as myocardial infarction, as found in a recent study published in the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives. Lead researcher, Kai Chen (of the Yale School of Public Health) stated that the study confirms that microparticles in the air can trigger serious heart disease. The problem is particularly worrisome within the first few hours of exposure. 

 What Are UFPs?

Ultrafine pollution particles (UFPs) are tiny, yet they possess a large surface area per unit of mass. They are highly efficient at making their way into the blood system, something the Yale team discovered in the 1990s, with studies showing that they have a damaging effect on the health of people with asthma. In essence, they have an enhanced ability to cause inflammation and oxidative stress in the lungs. Moreover, they can be present indoors as well as outdoors, with UFP exposures particularly high in homes in which people smoke and use electric ovens. Outdoor UFPs can also affect indoor air quality, so optimal home ventilation is key for maintaining good health within the home environment. It is also important to pay heed to humidity levels, since indoor relative humidity is another factor that can affect UFP levels.

 UFPs Have Various Health Effects

Recent research may be focusing on the cardiovascular effects of UFPs, but these microparticles, which become more toxic as their size decreases, actually have many more effects – they cause inflammation, cause the large vessels on the heart’s surface to constrict, and are linked to diabetes and cancer. UFPs also travel to the brain via the olfactory nerves, causing cerebral and other types of dysfunction. These particles are particularly dangerous during pregnancy, as they increase the likelihood of babies being born with a low birth weight.

 LPS and EVs in Indoor Dust

study by Yang and colleagues has shown that two UFPs that can be harmful to lung health are lipopolysaccharide and bacterial extracellular vesicles (EV), which are found in indoor dust. Depending on the amount of LPS, home dwellers can develop conditions such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and asthma. Bacterial EV, meanwhile, is linked to COPD, lung cancer, asthma, and emphysema. The scientists warned that it was important to reduce LPS sources in the home and to improve the balance of inhaled bacterial EVs. Just a few common sources of LPS include organic dust, cigarette smoke, and air pollution. Breathing in LPS stimulates the immune system, resulting in lung inflammation. In severe cases, LPS inhalation leads to tissue injury and organ failure.

 Indoor Air Quality in American Homes

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned that the indoor air quality in American homes can be two to five times worse than the air outdoors. They add that the immediate effects of exposure to indoor air pollution is often similar to those of colds or other viral diseases, so many people are unaware that poor indoor air quality is the reason for their symptoms. Of course, not all people have an immediate reaction to pollution. The EPA states, “health effects may show up either years after exposure has occurred or only after long or repeated periods of exposure. These effects, which include some respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer, can be severely debilitating or fatal.” Therefore, all homeowners should take steps to proactively tackle indoor air pollution, aiming to reduce their exposure to potential toxins by eliminating sources such as fuel-burning combustion appliances, tobacco products, insulation containing deteriorated asbestos, personal care products in spray form, excess moisture, and the like. They should also be wary of potential sources of outdoor pollution – including radon and pesticides.

Improving Indoor Air Quality Levels

There may be little you can do to control the quality of the air outdoors, but you can significantly improve your indoor air quality by taking a few key steps. These include keeping your indoor spaces at the right humidity levels. As found in a study by Weichenthal and colleagues, humidity is a predictor of UFP exposure because “UFP growth depends in part on the availability of condensable vapors which participate in gas-to-particle transformations.” The ideal relative humidity for health and comfort stands at 30-50%. If your levels go over this limit, take steps to reduce humidity by removing indoor plants, using a dehumidifier, and ensuring all leaks are repaired. Don’t allow the air to get too dry, either, since dry homes can increase your susceptibility to colds and respiratory illness, and can allow some viruses and germs to thrive. If you live in an arid area, a whole house dehumidifier for winter months, installed directly into your ductwork, will distribute humidity through your home. It also requires little maintenance, as it can be checked with the rest of your HVAC system once a year.

 Small But Useful Changes

Additional steps you can take include regularly ventilating indoor spaces, eliminating pressed wood furniture from the home (since this contains glue that can harm respiratory and heart health), and removing carpets (which can store dangerous levels of dust and dander). You should also avoid using harsh cleaning products containing ammonia and bleach. For surfaces, use essential oil blends such as Thieves (with antimicrobial properties), and for both furniture and flooring, rely on a powerful steam vacuum to kill germs and leave indoor areas spotless.Recent research has shown that exposure to UFPs for just a few hours can result in myocardial infarction. UFPs affect human health in many additional ways and are linked to a host of ehealth conditions – including diabetes, cancer, and cerebral dysfunction. They can be present in indoor dust and when they are, they raise one’s chances of developing lung cancer, asthma, and other respiratory problems. The EPA has warned that many American homes are unfortunately far more polluted than home dwellers realize. This is because indoor air pollution can have immediate effects, but it can also cause long-term effects whose cause is sometimes difficult to identify. To reduce your exposure to these microparticles, aim to improve your indoor air quality. Ensure humidity levels are just right and consider changes to furniture and flooring as an investment in your family’s health. Also, forego harsh cleaning products, personal care products in spray form, carpets, and other potential items that can cause toxic overload in your home.

Jennifer Gardiner is an environment and health enthusiast working on issues of critical importance.

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