Exposure to polluted air increases the risk of heart disease and stroke by speeding up the hardening of the arteries, according to new research.
United States researchers took ultrasound measurements of the blood vessels of more than 5000 people and examined pollution levels at each person’s house.
In findings published in PLOS Medicine on Wednesday, the researchers concluded that higher concentrations of fine particles in the air were linked to a faster thickening of the inner two layers of the common carotid artery, a blood vessel that provides blood to the head, neck and brain.
The study comes as a Senate committee examines the impact of air quality on health.
Greens Senator Richard Di Natale, who initiated the inquiry, is calling for tougher air quality standards and better monitoring, particularly in relation to groups of people at higher risk of disease, such as those in low income areas, on major transport corridors or in coal mining regions.
Senator Di Natale said the number of Australians who died from air pollution each year was more than twice the national road toll.
The director general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Kandeh Yumkella recently said that globally, air pollution was causing more deaths than AIDS and malaria combined.
Australia presently has only an advisory standard for acceptable concentrations of fine particles, which are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or one-thirtieth of the width of a human hair.
The Australian Medical Association has told the Senate inquiry that Australia’s rules do not protect human health.
Association federal president Steve Hambleton told the inquiry fine particles – which are released into the air from sources such as coal mining and the burning of petrol and wood – were particularly dangerous because they were so small they could lodge deep in the lungs.
But mining company Rio Tinto told the inquiry Australian air quality standards were too tough and should be eased.
Adrian Barnett, a Principal Research Fellow from the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology noted the study had demonstrated that improvements in air quality over time brought health benefits.
”As there’s no safe level of air pollution, we would see health benefits in Australia if we were bold enough to implement policies that reduced traffic pollution. This could include ‘stick’ measures such as taxing diesel vehicles, or ‘carrot’ measures such as subsidising electric vehicles,” he said.