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Studying Mechanistic Links Between Pollution and Heart Disease

Environmental factors are considered key determinants of cardiovascular disease. Although lifestyle choices such as smoking, diet, and exercise are viewed as major environmental influences, the contribution of pollutants and environmental chemicals is less clear. Accumulating evidence suggests that exposure to pollutants and chemicals could elevate the risk of cardiovascular disease. Many epidemiological studies report that exposure to fine particles present in ambient air is associated with an increase in cardiovascular mortality. Statistically significant relationships between particulate air pollution and ischemic heart disease, arrhythmias, and heart failure have been reported. Animal studies show that exposure to ambient air particles increases peripheral thrombosis and atherosclerotic lesion formation. Exposures to arsenic, lead, cadmium, pollutant gases, solvents, and pesticides have also been linked to increased incidence of cardiovascular disease. Mechanistically, these effects have been attributed to changes in the synthesis or reactivity of nitric oxide that may be caused by environmental oxidants or increased endogenous production of reactive oxygen species. Additional studies are urgently needed to: identify the contribution of individual pollutants to specific aspects of cardiovascular disease; establish causality; elucidate the underlying physiological and molecular mechanisms; estimate the relative susceptibility of diseased and healthy individuals and that of specific population groups; and determine whether pollutant exposure are risk correlates, that is, whether they influence major risk factors, such as hypertension, cholesterol, or diabetes, or whether they contribute to the absolute risk of heart disease. Collectively, these investigations could contribute to the emergent field of environmental cardiology.