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Highway to the Danger Zone

air pollution dangersBusy commuters now have yet another reason to avoid rush hour traffic on their drives to and from work. It turns out that being exposed to traffic pollution can cause a higher risk of heart attack for up to six hours after the exposure.

A study released by the British Medical Journal says that while breathing excess amounts of exhaust fumes does not directly cause heart attacks, but will increase the likelihood of a cardiac event for someone already at risk. For this reason, doctors are encouraging patients with existing heart attack risk factors to avoid heavy traffic fumes whenever possible.

In the study, researchers in London looked at nearly 80,000 people who had previously experienced a heart attack and determinied the time of day when the attack occurred. This information was cross-referenced with pollution levels in various locations to find any correlation. From this data, researchers discovered that a person was most likely to have a heart attack in the six hours following their exposure to heavy traffic fumes. People living in areas with medium-level pollution had a 5 percent higher risk than those in a low pollution area.

These findings reinforce a 2009 German study that also looked at the link between traffic smog and heart attacks. That research, presented at an American Heart Association conference showed that sitting in heavy traffic can triple a person’s risk of heart attack in the hour after their exposure.

It has been well established that pollution in general has a serious impact on cardiac health by making blood more likely to clot. These clots can quickly clog an artery, cutting off blood flow to the heart and causing a heart attack. While smoking, obesity and generally unhealthy lifestyle choices are much greater risk factors, breathing exhaust fumes for prolonged periods can quickly exacerbate underlying conditions.

Armed with this new information, people at risk for heart attacks should be more deliberate in their daily commuting routines, choosing back roads or less-congested hours to travel. Maintaining overall health and scheduling annual visits with a New York cardiologist can help identify risk factors in their early stages to prevent heart attacks in the future.

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