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Study finds air pollution and noise both increase risk of heart problems

20th June, 2013

A new study has shown that both air pollution and night noise can independently cause large increases in ‘subclinical atherosclerosis’. This is a condition that typically precedes heart problems. Subclinical atherosclerosis can be detected by tests, but would not be picked up in the normal course of events because it precedes clinical symptoms.

Dr. Philip Harber, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona said “In the past, some air pollution studies have been dismissed because critics said it was probably the noise pollution that caused the harm, and vice versa. Now we know that people who live near highways, for instance, are being harmed by air pollution and by noise pollution.”

A key finding is how large the effects are. A 2.4 ug/m3 (microgrammes per cubic metre) increase in small particulates increases the risk factor that was measured by 20%. The limit for small particulates allowed by UK and EU air pollution standards is as high as 20 ug/m3.

An increase in night noise of 5 dB increases the risk factor that was measured by 8%. While the study looked at noise from road traffic, there is no reason to believe that noise from aircraft does not have similar effects. Night time noise from aircraft regularly exceeds the maximum level recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The American Thoracic Society press release is available here.

report recently published by the World Health Organization found that the damaging health impacts of some key air pollutants can occur at lower atmospheric concentrations than the thresholds currently in EU and UK law. This suggests that the current EU standards (which are mirrored in the UK) for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) would need to be revised downwards to avoid damage to public health. In terms of air quality, PM10 and NO2 are the most important pollutants produced by airports and aircraft.