A female with a face mask on the side of a high traffic road - air pollution

Scientists Urge Crackdown on Air Pollution to Help the Heart

New publication on air pollution and cardiovascular disease asks; can the Australian bushfires and global pandemic convince us to change our ways?

16 June 2021

Scientists at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute are calling for the consideration of a raft of air pollution measures to address heart disease, including face masks when air quality is poor, a crackdown on emissions from factories and road congestion, and tougher policies to regulate air pollution.

In a paper just published in BioEssays, researchers at the Institute focus on the deadly Australian 2019-2020 bushfire season and the COVID-19 lockdown and have collated evidence from around the globe demonstrating the profound effects on heart health.

Professor Jason Kovacic, Executive Director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, says: “Air pollutants are a major global health challenge but their effects on the heart and blood vessels are particularly worrying. We’ve been able to review the dramatic differences over the last two years on heart health due to the bushfires and COVID-19.

“Through the bushfires, millions of Australians experienced days when it was hard to breathe and even dangerous to venture outside, which led to a spike in cases of cardiovascular disease. We then saw the very opposite when our cities were quiet, factories closed, and cars stayed home during COVID-19.

“We now need our government here in Australia, and countries around the world, to introduce measures to keep air pollution and carbon emission levels low permanently. With almost a third of cardiovascular deaths attributable to air pollution, this could save tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Infographic Air Pollution

Australia’s air quality was in the spotlight during the 2019-20 bushfire season, one of the worst events in terms of air quality in recorded history. The poor air quality raised cardiovascular mortality by 4.5% and left the country with an economic health burden of $1.8 billion.

In comparison, the global pandemic saw a 9% percent drop in CO2 emissions in 2020 because of lockdowns, the reduction in air travel and closure of industry. Statistical modelling found this improvement in air quality during the lockdowns saved thousands of lives, even taking into consideration COVID-19 and cardiovascular disease (CVD) co-morbidity.

Co-author Dr Kathryn Wolhuter, of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, says the pandemic could produce a silver lining if action was taken on air pollution levels. “Perhaps a positive to what everyone has been through is recognising that tougher measures are needed to improve the quality of the air we breathe. Clean air benefits us all and saves lives.

“Reducing air pollution levels could be one of the most important steps we take after COVID-19. We have seen the clear benefits in lives saved and costs to the health system. Now that we know the impact, it would be incredibly remiss of us not to act.”

The paper’s authors highlight air pollution legislation enacted by countries overseas which could be adopted here in Australia. This includes the enforced use of higher-quality gasoline and measures put in place during the Beijing Olympics which restricted power plant operation times and reduced road traffic congestion.

Public health campaigns encouraging people to wear face masks during times of high air pollution could also be adopted.

Read the full paper from BioEssays here.

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Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years