Air pollution threatens heart health

Air pollution is said to be a constant threat to heart health. Yet only 13% of Canadians make the connection between air pollution and cardiovascular disease.

There are approximately 6,000 additional deaths in Canada each year due to short-term exposure to air pollution and research suggests that 69% of these cases are heart disease or stroke, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. On the island of Montreal, some 1500 premature deaths are attributed to air pollutants.

“Since the early 1990s, there has been mounting evidence from Canada, the United States, and Europe of higher rates of heart attack and hospitalization for serious cardiovascular conditions such as heart failure and stroke after short- or long-term exposure to air pollution,” says Dr. George Honos, cardiologist and spokesperson for the Foundation.

The duration of exposure is a critical element in the impact of air pollution on cardiovascular disease risk. Studies in different countries and cities produce different results, but research shows that every 10 micrograms per cubic meter (micrograms/m(3)) increase in long-term exposure to fine particles (PM2.5) can increase the risk of succumbing to heart disease or stroke. In some people, this increase can be as high as 76%.

Even short-term exposure can be dangerous. One study reports that a daily increase in PM2.5 fine particles as low as 20 micrograms/m(3) can increase the risk of a heart attack by 69% over the next 24 hours.


Short-term exposure is only the tip of the iceberg, however, because no region of the country is immune to the long-term effects of air pollution. Environment Canada estimates that at least 30% of Canadians are exposed to levels of fine particulate matter that exceed the maximum acceptable level.

Local air pollution can come from many sources: industry, vehicles, diesel trucks, power plants, windblown dust, and fires in homes and outdoors. Its effect on health is determined by the concentration of various pollutants and the general health of the individual. Pollutants can travel long distances carried by prevailing winds.


“We encourage Quebecers to change their lifestyle habits to reduce their risk,” says Dr. Honos, “but air pollution is an invasive and unavoidable risk that most people don’t realize the short- and long-term impact.”

“Poor air quality is a particular challenge for our aging population and for those at higher risk of cardiovascular disease,” continues the cardiologist. How ironic that people who are trying to recover from cardiovascular disease, or trying to avoid it through physical activity, may actually be putting themselves at even greater risk because of the poor quality of the air they breathe outside while being active.”


The Heart and Stroke Foundation believes that governments can act to reduce air pollution and its impact on heart disease by

– Expanding the National Air Quality and Health Index to all regions of the country to provide all Canadians with easy-to-understand information and recommendations on when and how to reduce their exposure. The SAQI follows a scale designed to increase understanding of what ambient air quality means to health.

– Strengthen federal and provincial air quality regulations by ensuring that emission controls will result in cleaner air.

– Provide public education and incentive programs to encourage consumers and industry to take action to reduce air pollution.
– Invest more in public transit within major urban centers and between major cities across the country, including high-speed rail along the Quebec-Ottawa-Windsor corridor and between Edmonton and Calgary.

– Ensure that all wood stoves, fireplaces, and fuel-burning appliances sold in Canada meet the requirements of Canadian emission standards and are labeled to indicate compliance.

– Allocate at least seven percent (7%) of federal transportation infrastructure funding to facilities that promote walking and cycling to reduce automobile dependency and air pollution.

– Work with urban planners to create neighborhoods and communities that encourage walking and cycling and reduce dependence on the automobile.