Blood clots linked to air pollution

By Dr. Cory Couillard
In 2013, air pollution was identified as a leading environmental cause of lung cancer and a major contributing factor in an array of other heart and lung diseases. New research this week at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine validated these findings and linked irregular heartbeats and blood clots in the lungs to air pollution.

Air pollution can occur anywhere and occurs when any chemical, physical or biological agent contaminates the environment. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), stoves in the home, motor vehicles, industrial facilities and forest fires are common sources of air pollution.

“Pollutants of major public health concern include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide. Both ambient (outdoor) and household (indoor) air pollution cause respiratory and other diseases, which can be fatal.

“The evidence shows that environmental risk factors play a role in more than 80% of the diseases regularly reported by the WHO. Globally, nearly one quarter of all deaths and of the total disease burden can be attributed to the environment.”

In March, WHO reported that around 7 million people died in 2012 – one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure. In 2013, they even classified the hazards of air pollution to be in the same category as tobacco smoke, UV radiation and plutonium.

“The new estimates are not only based on more knowledge about the diseases caused by air pollution, but also upon better assessment of human exposure to air pollutants through the use of improved measurements and technology,” explains WHO.

“Cleaning up the air we breathe prevents noncommunicable diseases as well as reduces disease risks among women and vulnerable groups, including children and the elderly,” says Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General Family, Women and Children’s Health.

“Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves.”

Blood clots and irregular heart beats aside, children also experience more generalised illnesses, such as bronchitis, asthma and earaches when exposed to the chemical onslaught of environmental pollution.

More than 50 per cent of premature deaths of children under-five are due to pneumonia that is caused by soot inhaled from household air pollution. However, the absolute cause and effect of pollutants on health is often impossible to obtain. This is due to individual differences such as genetics, one’s overall health, history of exposure and a pollutants reaction time.

For example, elderly individuals have often breathed in more pollution and have a decreased ability to filter out and dispose of its toxic components. This is one of the reasons that the strongest link to blood clots and irregular heartbeats was seen in the over-75s and in women.

“Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe,” explained Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

Concerted action from groups, organisations, schools and businesses can address the global environmental issues. Now in its 22nd year, Clean Up the World, held in conjunction with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), mobilises an estimated 35 million volunteers from 130 countries annually, making it one of the largest community-based environmental campaigns in the world.

If you would like to be involved, visit

Dr Couillard is an international health columnist that works in collaboration with the World Health Organization’s goals of disease prevention and control. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.

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