Harvard School of Public Health researchers have discovered that older adults may be at increased risk of being hospitalized for lung and heart disease, stroke, and diabetes following long-term exposure to fine-particle air pollution.
This is the first study to look at the link between long-term effects of exposure to fine particles in the air and rates of hospital admissions, they noted.
“Our study found that long-term rates of admissions for pneumonia, heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes are higher in locations with higher long-term average particle concentrations,” said lead author Itai Kloog, a research fellow in the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Kloog and his colleagues, including senior author Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, used novel prediction models, based on satellite observations, emissions, traffic, and weather data to predict levels of fine air particles in the air all over New England, which allowed the researchers to include rural and suburban areas.
The Harvard researchers compared their findings with hospital admission records on all Medicare patients, ages 65 and older, admitted to 3,000 hospitals throughout New England from 2000-2006.
They estimated concentrations of fine air particles known as PM2.5 — air matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less and more narrow than the width of a human hair. These particles, such as soot from vehicles, and other particles from power plants, wood burning fireplaces and stoves, and industry, are a significant health risk when they lodge in the lungs, causing inflammation there and in the rest of the body, and contributing to lung and heart disease.
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An association was found between increased long-term exposure to fine air particles and an increase in respiratory admissions, an increase in cardiovascular disease admissions, an increase in stroke admissions, and an increase in diabetes admissions, according to a review of hospital admissions.
“Particulate air pollution is one of the largest avoidable causes of death and illness in the United States, and unlike diet and exercise, does not require behavioral change. Off-the-shelf technology can be retrofitted onto sources of pollution at modest cost, with a large health benefit. This study shows that in addition to avoiding deaths, such measures will reduce chronic disease and medical care costs,” said Schwartz.
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“Acute and Chronic Effects of Particles on Hospital Admissions in New England,” Itai Kloog, Brent A. Coull, Antonella Zanobetti, Petros Koutrakis, and Joel D. Schwartz, PLoS ONE, online April 17, 2012.
The study was funded by the Harvard Environmental Protection Agency Center, the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, and the Environment and Health Fund Israel.