Q. What do we know about the link between air pollution and heart disease?

A. Scientists at the University of Southern California found that air pollution may contribute to narrowing of the arteries at a very early stage of the disease, similar to smoking, and enhance atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

Q. Shouldn’t I be worrying more about cholesterol and smoking?

A. In June 2004, the American Heart Association, an 80-year-old organization that has traditionally focused on risk factors such as poor diet and lack of exercise, issued a scientific statement that concluded that air pollutants pose a “serious public health problem” for cardiovascular disease. Air pollution exposure can increase the risk from other factors such as diet and smoking.

Q. Why should I be worried about fine particles? Shouldn’t I be worried more about the black soot I can see?

A. Fine particles in the air contain microscopic substances such as sulfates and nitrates, organic chemicals, metals, and carbon soot. These tiny particles can get trapped deep in the lungs. They have been linked to reduced lung function, greater use of asthma medications, and increased rates of school absenteeism, emergency room visits, hospital admissions and premature death.

Q. I exercise and take care of myself. Why should I be worried?

A. Long-term studies have found that people living in areas with high fine particle concentrations have an increased risk of premature death compared to those in cleaner cities, even when all other factors are equal.

Q. What is the MESA Air study?

A. The MESA Air Pollution Study examines the relation between air pollution exposures and the progression of cardiovascular disease. For at least ten years, it will follow volunteers in six states, representing diverse areas of the country. MESA stands for Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (i.e. hardening of the arties). MESA Air is sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and is conducted through six universities: Columbia University (NY), Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore), Northwestern and Loyola Universities (Chicago), UCLA (LA), University of Minnesota (Twin Cities), and Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem).

Q. Why is this study important?

A. The information learned from this study will increase scientific knowledge about whether air pollution increases the risk for early cardiovascular disease.