British Heart Foundation Statement

Environmental health

Air pollution may increase cardiovascular disease risk by lowering levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), commonly known as “good cholesterol”, according to new research in the American Heart Association’s journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology.

Scientists at the University of Washington found that higher exposure to black carbon (a marker of traffic-related pollution) averaged over a one year period was significantly associated with a lower “good” cholesterol level.

The findings are part of an ongoing U.S. study examining the lifestyle factors that predict development of cardiovascular disease.

This study follows a large, diverse population and looked at time and place to estimate air pollution exposure for each study participant.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation, said:

“There is an urgent need to fund more research that looks in to the dangerous effects of air pollution on the cardiovascular system. This silent killer is related to 40,000 deaths in the UK each year, with eight in ten caused by a heart attack or stroke.

“This is an interesting study showing an association between higher air pollution and lower levels of HDL-cholesterol, often called ‘good cholesterol’. The effects are small and recent studies have questioned whether lower levels of HDL-cholesterol cause heart disease. Furthermore, air pollution causes a myriad of changes in the body – for example it also increases blood pressure  – and therefore it is difficult to know how much contribution, if any, the observed difference in HDL-cholesterol makes to the risk associated with air pollution.

“This means it is still too early to say how these findings might fit in to the wider picture, but the underlying message is the same: air pollution poses a serious risk to heart health.”