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'No Safe Level of Air Pollution': Major Study Links Cardiac Arrests With Fine Particulate Matter Exposure

Health + Wellness
'No Safe Level of Air Pollution': Major Study Links Cardiac Arrests With Fine Particulate Matter Exposure
A man wearing a protective mask sits on the lawn in front of the Australian Parliament house in Canberra, Australia on Jan. 1, 2020. The level of air pollution in Canberra is the highest in the world on some days. Daniiielc / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Researchers now say there is "no safe level" of air pollution exposure after a large-scale study found a correlation between exposure to fine particle matter, known as PM2.5, and cardiac arrests, according to the The Sydney Morning Herald.


The researchers found that exposure to PM2.5 that even fell below global standards was hazardous, suggesting that tighter regulations and cleaner energy is required, according to the study, which was published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health.

Scientists from the University of Sydney led the study, which analyzed air quality in Japan against 249,372 cases of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests. They concluded that even low-level exposure was associated with an increased risk of cardiac arrest for people over 65, as The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

The researchers noticed that the risk of cardiac arrest grew by up to 4 percent for every increase of 10 units in the PM2.5 levels.

"Our study supports recent evidence that there is no safe level of air pollution — finding an increased risk of cardiac arrest despite air quality generally meeting the standards," said report author professor Kazuaki Negishi from the University of Sydney School of Medicine, as The Canberra Times reported.

Negishi pointed out that previous research into air pollution and acute cardiac events had been inconsistent, particularly at PM2.5 levels that met the World Health Organization guidelines. However, the large scale of this study meant that past inconsistencies could be addressed.

"Out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is a major medical emergency – with less than one in 10 people worldwide surviving these events – and there has been increasing evidence of an association with the more acute air pollution, or fine particulate matter such as PM2.5," said Negishi in a University of Sydney statement. "We analyzed almost a quarter of a million cases of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests and found a clear link with acute air pollution levels."

The findings are troubling for Australia, which has seen its usually pristine air plummet in quality due to the recent bushfires. In the study, more than 90 per cent of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occurred at levels below the Australian standard of 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Put another way, the air quality levels ranked as "fair," "good" or "very good" under Australian standards, as the The Sydney Morning Herald reported. The U.S. and Japanese standard is less strict at 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

Australia had a particularly awful year, with air quality in Canberra ranking as the worst in the world on Dec. 31. Sydney had 81 days of hazardous, very poor or poor air quality in 2019, which was more days of bad air than the last decade combined, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

The researchers expect the worsening air quality will lead to more heart attack fatalities in Australia, especially among older people.

"Given the fact that there is a tendency towards worsening air pollution – from increasing numbers of cars as well as disasters such as bushfires – the impacts on cardiovascular events, in addition to respiratory diseases and lung cancer – must be taken into account in health care responses," said Negishi in a university statement.

Unfortunately, the researchers did not identify a threshold that is safe for exposure to PM2.5. Instead, Negishi said that existing standards should be reevaluated.

"It might not be a good idea to continue to seek [a new] threshold, but try to continuously improve our air quality. If a threshold exists, it should be very, very close to zero," Negishi said, as The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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