- Air pollution has been linked to heart and lung problems, including stroke
- Exposure to pollutants increases risk of heart attacks by up to 5%
- Cardiologists in Brussels warned the effects can be felt within one day
- New study found the risk only affected men as researchers warn air pollution is one of the largest avoidable causes of premature death
Evidence presented at the European Society for Cardiology Congress in London yesterday suggested that exposure to pollutants can push up the risk of heart attacks by up to five per cent - with the effects being felt within a day.
Levels of air pollution have been illegally high in 16 British cities since 2010, which doctors say causes heart and lung problems, increased risks of stroke and dementia, and reduced educational attainment among children.
Microscopic particles, much of which is generated by diesel exhausts, have been shown to cause lung damage and harmful changes in blood vessels and clotting.
But the latest study adds to research showing problems occur at levels well below those stipulated in current European Union air-quality directives.
It also raises concerns about the potential harm caused by the pollutant nitric dioxide, said researchers from Belgium.
They compared their country’s air pollution records with admissions to hospital for the most serious type of heart attack.
For every increase of 10 micrograms per cubic metre in exposure to PM 2.5, heart attacks rose by 2.8 per cent.
A similar rise in nitric dioxide levels was linked with a 5.1 per cent increased risk.
The risk increased only in men, not in women.
Between 2009 and 2013 there were 11,428 hospitalisations for heart attack, and the researchers adjusted for population density.
Lead researcher Dr Jean-Francois Argacha, a cardiologist at University Hospital Brussels, said he believed air pollution was one of the largest avoidable causes of premature death.
He said the association between the heart attacks in the study and air pollution occurred within one day of exposure.
He said: ‘This was despite the fact that concentrations of air pollutants were within the European air quality standard.
‘It is possible that only men were affected because of the under representation of women in our study population - less than 25 per cent.
‘Nevertheless, previous studies have demonstrated that blood pressure, arterial stiffness and heart rate variability abnormalities secondary to air pollution exposure are more pronounced in men.
‘Sex differences in obesity and blood inflammation may worsen air pollutant effects’ he said.
‘The detrimental impact of nitric dioxide exceeds that of fine particles and raises new public health concerns’ he added.
Previous research found pregnant women exposed to ‘safe’ levels of air pollution have a higher risk of giving birth to small babies.
The EU annual average air-quality limit is set at 25 micrograms per cubic metre.
The findings come after Britain’s Supreme Court earlier this year ordered ministers to take urgent action to deal with a different kind of air pollution - nitrogen dioxide - which is at illegal levels across Britain.
A panel of Lord Justices, headed by the court’s president Lord Neuberger, ruled in April that the Government had presided over a ‘continuing failure’ to reduce dangerous traffic fumes and factory emissions.
Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, welcomed the research.
He said: 'This research adds to the growing body of evidence that air pollution, even at levels seen in many UK cities, poses a serious risk to cardiovascular health.
'Previous research funded by the British Heart Foundation has shown that exposure to air pollution increases the risk of hospitalisation or death from heart attack or stroke.
'This new research now suggests even slight, short-term increases in air pollution are associated with more people being admitted to hospital due to heart failure.