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Just a Little Hurts a Lot

Short-term exposure (for up to 7 days) to all major air pollutants, with the exception of ozone, is significantly associated with an increased risk of heart attack.

This potentially harmful effect of episodes of high air pollution on health has been suspected for more than 50 years. Researcher Hazrije Mustafic says, "In industrialized countries, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of mortality and is associated with significant morbidity. These countries have high pollution levels. Since the 1990s, many epidemiological studies have demonstrated associations between air pollution levels and human health in terms of hospital admissions and overall mortality, including respiratory or cardiovascular mortality. However, the association between air pollution and near-term risk of (heart attacks) remains controversial."

But scientists are beginning to suspect it's true: When Mustafic and his team made a search of the medical literature, they identified 34 studies which indicated associations of statistical significance between all analyzed air pollutants and heart attack risk, with the exception of ozone.

The researchers acknowledge that the magnitude of association found in this study is relatively small compared with those of classic heart attack risk factors, such as smoking, hypertension, or diabetes. "Nevertheless," they write, "The population attributable fractions of each pollutant is not negligible because the majority of the population, including young and disabled patients, is exposed to air pollution, particularly in urban settings, and thus an improvement in air quality could have a significant effect on public health."

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