Air Pollution Fuels Concern

Programme Manager, Matthew Lawson reflects on the thought-provoking public lecture from the Our Changing World lecture series on air pollution and heart attacks.

Buying your first car is a liberating experience for many as it opens up the opportunity to travel to new destinations, and provides you with a further degree of independence. However, when purchasing a car how many of us consider the vehicle’s impact on air quality and subsequently your health?

Professor David Newby, who is currently the British Heart Foundation Professor of Cardiology at the University of Edinburgh presented on “Air Pollution and Heart Attacks”, guided the audience through the scientific research and highlighted ways that can reduce the risk of adverse health effects.

Initial research focused on investigating if there was a link between smoking and the risk of heart attacks. By working with smokers and non-smokers, the results highlighted that smokers were more likely to produce less of a blood clot dissolving protein, increasing the strain on the heart, and therefore increasing the risk of a heart attack.

Once the above correlation was established, the focus of the research moved towards investigating the relationship between air pollution and health impacts, especially looking at emissions from vehicle combustion engines. Studies took place across a range of countries, exposing volunteers to clean air and polluted air, as well as walking around cities with monitors to measure the level of pollution within the air.

It was found that air pollution goes with the traffic, therefore those living close to busy junctions or roads are more exposed to the nano-particles that can lead to greater exposure to heart attacks. Interestingly enough the research from the USA highlighted that people from poorer backgrounds are more likely to live nearer to these more polluted areas. There was also a marked difference in what petrol and diesel vehicles emit.

Petrol car engines emit a substantially lower amount of nano-particles compared to diesel car engines. Car manufacturers are testing filters on diesel combustion engines to reduce the amount of nano-particles that are emitted. These are not yet mandatory on new cars, however with the increasing amount of scientific evidence linking these engines to adverse health impacts, perhaps there is an opportunity for government intervention in this area in regard to public health.

Air pollution affects the lives of millions of people worldwide, however with the development of new technologies and the increasing amount of scientific evidence, there is likely to be progress in reducing the adverse impacts of diesel combustion engines on health. However, in the meantime when buying a car, perhaps it is worth giving more thought to what emissions the car produces?

Our Changing World lectures look at global challenges facing society and the role of science and academia in addressing them. See the Global Academy website for more details of the upcoming lectures.

Note: Thanks to the student volunteers who helped with ushering and running the microphones for the Q & A on the evening.