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Report reveals role of air pollution in cardiovascular disease deaths

The European Environment Agency have published an assessment titled ‘Beating cardiovascular disease – the role of Europe’s environment’ which coalesces recent research into the causes of cardiovascular disease (CVD) deaths in Europe.

CVD (a term that encompasses heart attacks and strokes) is the most common cause of death in EU countries. Every year, more than 6 million new cases of are diagnosed and over 1.7 million people die from diseases of the circulatory system, representing around 37% of all deaths. It is particularly burdensome in central and eastern Europe.

selective focus photography of heart organ illustration

The causes of CVD are many and varied. Some, such as age, enthnicity and family history are unavoidable; others can be mitigated to varying degrees. 

The EEA’s assessment puts modifiable established risk factors into three groups:

  • clinical risk factors such as high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, excess weight and obesity, and diabetes. Some of these may be partly hereditary;
  • behavioural risk factors such as unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, smoking and alcohol use;
  • environmental risk factors like exposure to air pollution, noise and chemicals in the environment and the workplace, second-hand smoke, some infectious agents, thermal stress, and limited accessibility to settings that facilitate physical activity like green spaces.

It is pointed out that individuals cannot easily protect themselves from environment risks, they need to be reduced by public authorities or employers implementing policies and interventions that benefit large population groups at once. 

It is estimated that at least 18% of all cardiovascular disease deaths in Europe are due to environmental factors, including exposure to air pollution. A 2021 study found that heart disease and stroke are the most common causes of preventable deaths attributable to air pollution exposure, followed by lung diseases and lung cancer.

2017 research established that an increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 is associated with an 11% increase in cardiovascular mortality, even at pollutant levels lower than current EU limit values. 

Of the 18% of CVD deaths that are due to environment risks, 40% are due to air pollution. That is, 7% of the total.

report

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