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In a study released today in Circulation Research, a journal of the American Heart Association, BYU economics professor Arden Pope and colleagues at the University of Louisville discovered a link between air pollution and blood vessel damage.

Pope’s research on the environmental economics of air pollution spans decades. He has transitioned his work from answering questions about if air pollution affects respiratory health, to if it affects cardiovascular health, to how it affects cardiovascular health.

“For quite a few years, we’ve been trying to understand how breathing air pollution into your lungs can cause a cascade of cardiovascular effects,” Pope said. “These results substantially expand our understanding.”

The study specifically looked at young, healthy individuals, many of whom were BYU students. While the impact of air pollution on those who are ill or elderly is well known, this research solidifies that air pollution affects everyone.

Those studied were not exposed to pollution in any sort of lab or artificially created setting. Pope scheduled blood to be drawn specifically on days in Utah when air pollution was especially bad, during inversion periods in the winter. Blood markers were evaluated relative to blood drawn on days of low exposure. This method was a unique design that provided Pope with an authentic approach to evaluated effects of real environmental exposures.

Elevated exposures to air pollution were linked with abnormal changes in the blood, implicating increased cardiovascular disease. These changes included:

  • Small, micro-particles indicating cell injury and death significantly increased
  • Levels of proteins that inhibit blood-vessel growth increased
  • Proteins that signify blood-vessel inflammation also showed significant increases

Blood-vessel damage is known to lead to coronary artery disease, ischemic heart disease and stroke.

While the study’s findings may not lead to immediate policy changes from organizations or governing bodies, they add to the growing body of Pope’s work.

In the late 80s, a steel mill in Utah Valley shut down for one year due to a labor strike. Pope spotted a research opportunity that found big health problems caused by air pollution. Pope and other scholars found in successive studies that polluted air impacted hospital admissions, mortality rates and cardiovascular disease. The research caught the attention of scientists and regulators, which led to stronger national air quality standards.

A 2013 New York Times story covering Pope’s work noted that while air pollution is one of the planet’s most dangerous environmental carcinogens, cardiovascular effects are much more common than respiratory effects such as lung cancer.

Dr. Pope originally had focused on air pollution’s effects on the lungs, but over the years he kept turning up increases in cardiovascular disease. “By 2002, I’d given up on the idea that this was just some anomaly in the study design,” he recalled in an interview. Eventually he identified the culprit: fine particles, far smaller than those tracked in his original steel mill study. “The deeper you dive into the data, the more clearly you see the effect on cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Pope said.

Writer: Jon McBride