Air pollution poses many health risks, but a new study suggests that women with diabetes are at particular risk in terms of their cardiovascular health when they are exposed to air pollution over time.

The study

The study from the American Heart Association (AHA) looked at 114,537 women (average age 64) who were part of a Nurses’ Health Study. Between the years of 1989-2006, researchers recorded incidences of cardiovascular disease (6,767), coronary heart disease (3,878) and strokes (3,295). Cardiovascular disease risk rose slightly for all women with increasing exposure to tiny pollution particles, but the risks were greater for the women with diabetes.

“Although studies have shown that people with diabetes are particularly vulnerable to the cardiovascular effects of acute exposures to air pollution, our study is one of the first to demonstrate high risks of cardiovascular disease among individuals with diabetes with long-term exposures to particulate matter,” said Jaime E. Hart, ScD, study lead author and assistant professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.

Finer particles of pollution that typically come from vehicle exhaust and power plants can enter the bloodstream after being inhaled. They had the greatest impact on heart disease risk among study participants, according to the study results.

Dangers of pollution

Diabetes by itself has negative effects on the heart, but when paired to long-term air pollution the consequences could be even more dire.

Current science suggests air pollution facilitates atherosclerosis development and progression and may also play a role in high blood pressure and heart failure, according to AHA.

Short-term effects of air pollution tend to strike people who are elderly or already struggling with heart disease, Russell Luepker, cardiologist and epidemiologist, told AHA. Pollutants can cause plaque in a blood vessel to rupture, triggering a heart attack, particularly in someone who has atherosclerosis.

Pollution is also believed to have inflammatory effects on the heart, causing chronic cardiovascular problems.

Living near a busy road could be particularly dangerous, as traffic pollution has been found in one study to have negative effects on the heart and even increase the risk for the development of diabetes, according to Diabetes in Control.

Of course, you can still live in an urban area and not have a heart attack. It appears that air pollution is particularly dangerous to those who already have a chronic condition such as diabetes, or an underlying heart condition such as hypertension or coronary disease that can be exaggerated by exposure.

What you can do

If you are worried about air pollution, you might want to consider a change of scenery. A recent report from the United Health Foundation found that Wyoming and North Dakota have exceedingly clean air while California has the worst air quality of any state in the United States. Idaho, Pennsylvania, and Indiana also have bad air, according to the report.

Other things to consider:
• Avoid the heat because air quality is lowest when the temperature is highest.
• Go to to check the EPA’s daily air quality forecast for more than 300 cities.
• Eat foods high in antioxidants like cherries and tomatoes because antioxidants trap free radicals.
• When sitting in traffic, use your vehicle’s recycled-air setting so you are not inhaling fumes.
• Avoid high-traffic streets.

It is also a good idea to avoid jobs with high exposures to pollutants and remain indoors during severe pollution. Jobs that are exposed to a high volume of pollution include mining, food processing, farming, textile manufacturing, welding, and traffic directing.

There are also things you can do at home to reduce air pollution in your community. The EPA has several recommendations including:
• Conserve energy—turn off appliances and lights when you leave the room
• Keep woodstoves and fireplaces well maintained. Consider replacing old wood stoves with EPA-certified models.
• Use low-VOC or water-based paints, stains, finishes, and paint strippers
• Choose not to smoke in your home

Has air pollution negatively impacted your health? Share your thoughts below.