Scientists say pollution presents a greater threat to global health than war, terrorism, and a range of diseases combined. 

New research emphasises the significant role that global warming, air pollution, and wildfire smoke play in driving cardiovascular disease, while also bringing attention to less obvious factors such as soil, noise, and light pollution, and exposure to toxic chemicals.

“Every year around 20 million people worldwide die from cardiovascular disease with pollutants playing an ever-increasing role,” says Professor Jason Kovacic, Director and CEO of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.

“Pollutants have reached every corner of the globe and are affecting every one of us.”

The world is experiencing unprecedented wildfires, soaring temperatures, and unacceptable levels of road noise and light pollution in urban areas, as well as exposure to untested toxic chemicals in homes.

The findings come from collaborative efforts by researchers at institutions including the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, University of Edinburgh, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Global Observatory on Planetary Health at Boston College, Centre Scientifique de Monaco, and the University Medical Centre Mainz. 

The experts say there is an urgent need to enhance monitoring of pollutants to identify the most at-risk communities and to understand better how specific pollutants increase cardiovascular disease risks at an individual level.

Pollutants contribute to cardiovascular disease through various mechanisms. 

For instance, smoke and toxins can be inhaled into the lower respiratory tract, enter the bloodstream, and then be transported to other organs, causing oxidative stress and damaging cells and organs, including the heart. 

Noise and light pollution can disrupt sleep patterns, increase inflammation, and elevate blood pressure and weight. 

Extreme heat can cause dehydration, reduce blood volume, increase cardiovascular strain, and lead to acute kidney failure.

“Whilst many of these biological mechanisms are known, we still have a huge gap in our understanding of the link between pollutants and heart disease,” Professor Kovacic says.

“There are hundreds of thousands of chemicals that haven’t even been tested for their safety or toxicity, let alone their impact on our health.”

The reports reveal some stark statistics, including;

  • Outdoor and indoor air pollution together are linked to over seven million premature deaths annually, with more than half due to cardiovascular causes, primarily ischemic heart disease and stroke

  • Air pollution is responsible for one-fifth of all cardiovascular deaths

  • The risk of heat-related cardiovascular mortality can increase by over 10 per cent during heatwaves

  • Since 2002, exposure to wildfire smoke in the USA has increased by 77 per cent

  • Globally, wildfire smoke accounts for an estimated 339,000 to 675,000 premature deaths each year

  • Over 300,000 new synthetic chemicals have been manufactured since 1950, with many of their safety profiles unknown

  • In Europe, an estimated 113 million people are affected by long-term exposure to traffic noise levels of at least 55 dB(A)

The researchers propose several recommendations to mitigate the impact of pollutants on cardiovascular health:

  • Implementing heart-healthy urban designs, such as increasing tree cover, promoting safe active travel, and reducing vehicle use

  • Ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry to encourage investment in renewable and cleaner energy production

  • Launching public health campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of air pollution

  • Incorporating education about the risks of pollutants into medical training

“Urgent action is required as climate change strides forward and pollution infiltrates the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the places we live in,” the authors state. 

More details are accessible here.