Scientists Probe Air Pollution-Heart Disease Link

December 12, 2005

Today the Environmental Protection Agency awarded the University of Rochester Medical Center $8 million to study the link between cardiovascular health and the harmful ambient air particles we breathe every day.

The initiative is part of a nationwide effort, with the Medical Center being named one of five EPA Particulate Matter (PM) Centers. The grants to each institution are funded through the EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) competitive grants program.

Hospitalizations for heart problems tend to soar when urban air pollution levels are highest. But scientists are unsure why this occurs. The University will engage a multidisciplinary team of toxicologists, pulmonologists, cardiologists, epidemiologists and atmospheric scientists to research the question. They will test the hypothesis that pollution leads to inflammation, heart disease, and sometimes, early death from cardiac arrest. This is especially worrisome for vulnerable individuals such as diabetics, people with respiratory disease, and the elderly with other preexisting medical conditions.

The university’s Department of Environmental Medicine is already a national leader in the study of how the tiniest airborne particles harm the lungs and blood vessels, so the latest project is a natural extension of years of scientific exploration.

“This cross-disciplinary, five-year team approach is designed to identify the sources of the finest particles of air pollution, characterize their health effects, and provide the government with information that could change the regulation of those particles most likely to cause health problems,” said Gunter Oberdoerster, Ph.D., director of the University’s PM Center, and professor of Environmental Medicine.

“An understanding of the role played by the very small ‘ultrafine’ particles in causing adverse health effects will go a long way in protecting the public health from the potential consequences of air pollution,” added Mark J. Utell, M.D., associate director of the PM Center and professor of Medicine and of Environmental Medicine, and director of the Medical Center’s Pulmonary Unit.

Rochester researchers will build on their previous data in rats showing that exposure to carbon ultra-fine particles while sitting in traffic alters the endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, causing a rise in heart rate, blood pressure, and an expression of certain genes. In the animal study, the pollution also seemed to injure the autonomic nervous system, which controls many vital functions in the body. Researchers will focus on the mechanisms by which fine and ultra-fine particles cause these adverse health effects.

Particulate matter in the air comes from coal-burning power plants, factories, construction, vehicles, tilled fields, unpaved roads, stone-crushing and the burning of wood and other materials. Other particles are formed in the air when gases emitted from burning fuels react with sunlight and water vapor.

The EPA’s other PM Centers are located at the University of California at Los Angeles, Harvard University, the University of California at Davis, and Johns Hopkins University.

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