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Skipped Heart Beats due to Pollution

Air pollution can lead to irregular heart rhythm in healthy teens, even at low levels as set by environmental agencies. A study published this week showed that teens experienced skipped beats within 2 hours of breathing polluted air, such as that from car exhausts and wildfires. This is the first research that shows that pollution affects the cardiovascular health in young healthy teens.

Irregular heartbeat can lead to sudden cardiac death in healthy adults on rare occasions. In light of this current research, it is possible that air pollution can lead to sudden cardiac death in young healthy individuals. Also, as cardiovascular disease in young individuals track into adulthood, avoiding cardiovascular risk factors such as air pollution at a young age can lead to less cardiovascular disease at an older age.

The environmental protection agency in the US sets quality standards of less than 35 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic feet of air per day. In the current study, the particulate matter concentration was half of that, set at 17 microgram per cubic foot. Researchers studied 322 teens from Pennsylvania for 24 hours between 2010 and 2013, and they measured their heart rhythm using wearable devices like Holter monitors.

Researchers investigated two types of irregular heart rhythms that cause premature contraction of the muscle of the heart. The first was the Premature Atrial Contractions (PACs), and this originates from the upper part of the heart. This generally does not cause significant issues but can be a precursor of developing long-term irregularity of the heart by developing an arrhythmia known as Atrial Fibrillation (AF). This can cause a higher risk of clots forming in the heart and can lead to strokes.

The second type of irregular heartbeat that was studied is known as Premature Ventricular Contractions (PVCs), and these originate from the lower part of the heart. These can increase the risk of heart failure, strokes and sudden cardiac death.

Both of these types of irregular heart rhythms can occur without symptoms, which can lead to heart failure and cardiovascular damage without the individual knowing about them. In the current study, 40% of the participants had PACs and 12% had PVCs, and 48% had both types of irregular heartbeats. Analysis showed that with each increase of 10 micrograms of pollutants particulate matter per cubic foot of air, there was a 5% increase in the number of PVCs, occurring within 2 hours of exposure. No association was found between the increase in particulate matter inhalation and the PACs.

The current study shows healthy young adults who live in polluted areas start to develop cardiovascular disease at a young age, and the irregular heart pattern can rarely lead to sudden cardiac death. It is not unreasonable to postulate that with continued exposure, these young individuals will have increased risk of developing significant cardiovascular disease in adulthood. In polluted areas, wearing masks and avoiding outdoor physical activities may reduce the risk of inhalation of these pollutants, and reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease in these young individuals.

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