Even a short reduction in air pollution levels can improve heart health, researchers claim. The study, conducted during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, discovered biological signs that cardiovascular health improves in when air pollution falls.
Senior author, Junfeng (Jim) Zhang, Ph.D. professor of environmental and global health at the Keck School of Medicine, at the University of Southern California (USC) says, "We believe this is the first major study to clearly demonstrate that changes in air pollution exposure affect cardiovascular disease mechanisms in healthy, young people."
The study, involving USC researchers and others, has just been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Prof Zhang says Beijing is among the worst polluted cities in the world and when it won the 2008 Olympics officials pledged to improve air quality during the festival of sport.
They spend $17 billion to improve the environment by closing factories, limiting traffic for two months over the summer Olympics and Palalympic events.
Researchers wanted to see how the move to bring pollution in Beijing down to levels of previous Olympic host venues would benefit the population and affect their biology.
The researchers from USC, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the University of Rochester and Beijing's Peking University, studied 125 resident hospital doctors in central Beijing who had no medical problems and were non-smokers.
The young male and female doctors, who were 24-years-old on average, attended the clinic six times - before, during and after the Olympics.
They investigated biomarkers that identify blood clots, blood pressure, heart rate and systematic inflammation. When the Olympics were held, study participants experienced significant falls in Von Willebrand factor and soluble CD62P totals, which affect blood coagulation.
Then, after the Olympics ended, levels of soluble CD62P and systolic blood pressure rose again. The differences suggest that the more air pollution there is, the higher the risk of heart problems developing. Alterations in other indicators that back up the theory were seen, but were not large enough to be statistically significant.
Few previous studies have investigated how environmental factors affect biomarkers and air pollution has only recently been linked to a raised risk of heart disease, says professor Jonathan Samet, M.D and the Flora L. Thornton Chair of the Keck School's Department of Preventive Medicine.
This new research provides vital evidence that exposure to air pollution can cause health issues, adds Prof Samet, who is also chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.
It is worth remembering that many people still live in cities with high levels of air pollution, much like Beijing, he adds.
The study reinforces the fact that human health and the environment are invisibly linked, says Caroline Dilworth, Ph.D., program administrator of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) that helped fund the study.
Post-doctoral research associate Jicheng Gong, Ph.D., and Duncan Thomas, Ph.D., a professor of preventive medicine, who are both from USC, also co-authored the report.
The Health Effects Institute, Beijing Council of Science and Technology and Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environment Protection also financed the research.