Air pollution may spur irregular heart rhythms in healthy teens: Teens hearts may skip a beat within two hours after air pollution exposure, study finds

Breathing particulate matter (i.e., tiny particles suspended in the air) air pollution may trigger irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias) in healthy teenagers, according to new research published today in the Journal of the American Heart Association, an open access, peer-reviewed journal of the American Heart Association.

While the negative cardiovascular effects of air pollution on adults has already been established, this study is the first to assess the impact of air pollution on teenagers in the general population.

“While relatively rare, irregular heart rhythms can lead to sudden cardiac death in otherwise healthy adolescents and young adults. Our findings linking air pollution to irregular heart rhythms suggest that particulate matter may contribute to the risk of sudden cardiac death among youth,” said Fan He, Ph.D., lead author of the study and an instructor in public health sciences at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “Since childhood and adolescent cardiovascular conditions can track into adulthood and affect risk of major cardiovascular disease later in life, identifying modifiable risk factors of cardiac arrhythmia that may cause sudden cardiac death among adolescents should be of great public interest.”

The study examined the impact of breathing fine particulate matter on heart rhythms of adolescents. Fine particulates (PM2.5) are less than 2.5 microns in size and can easily be inhaled deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream. Particles smaller than 2.5 microns are usually related to fuel combustion, such as particles from car exhaust or wildfires. Once inhaled, the pollutants irritate the lungs and blood vessels around the heart, and previous research has suggested that over time, pollutants increase the process of disease in the arteries.

The investigators analyzed the impact of breathing particulate matter pollution on two types of irregular heart rhythms characterized by premature contraction in the heart muscle, often described as a “skipped heart beat.” In premature atrial contractions (PAC), the heartbeat originates from the atria (top chambers of the heart). This usually causes no symptoms or harm, however, frequent, premature atrial contractions have been related to an increased risk of atrial fibrillation — a severe form of arrhythmia in which the top chambers quiver instead of beating effectively, thereby raising the risk of blood clots and stroke. Premature ventricular contractions (PVC) occur when the heartbeat originates from one of the ventricles (lower chambers of the heart). These also raise the risk of later heart attack, stroke, heart failure or sudden cardiac death.

If premature contractions cause no symptoms, they are not treated. However, if they occur often and lead to frequently feeling a skipped heartbeat, fast heartbeat or a pounding heart, treatment with medications, implantable devices or procedures may be advised.

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