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Environment, climate change and heart health
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Environment, climate change and heart health

Information on how air pollution, heatwaves and bushfires can impact heart health, and what you can do to look after yourself.

Key takeaways

  • Air pollution is the world’s single largest environmental health risk and is a main cause of climate change. Climate change contributes to the increase in extreme weather events in Australia.
  • Lowering levels of air pollution can improve heart health, both in the long- and short-term.
  • Exposure to air pollution, heatwaves or bushfire smoke can increase the risk of heart conditions. People with existing heart conditions also have an increased risk of complications.
  • Air pollution isn’t always easy to avoid, but there are simple steps you can take to reduce your exposure.
  • We discuss ways to stay cool during a heatwave and ways to limit your exposure to bushfire smoke.
  • We are funding research on how healthier environments can improve heart health. We also advocate for healthy places and spaces which can help reduce air pollution.

Environment and climate change have an impact on our health. Air pollution is a main cause of climate change.

Climate change is responsible for the extreme weather we are seeing in Australia more often. This includes heatwaves and bushfires.

Air pollution, heatwaves and bushfires can affect your heart health. People with an existing heart condition are most at risk.

Read on for ways you can look after your heart health when air pollution levels are higher than normal, and during heatwaves and bushfires.

Air pollution 

Globally, air pollution causes around one in five deaths from cardiovascular disease. In Australia in 2015, air pollution caused over 2,500 deaths.

Air pollution refers to the small particles and gases that circulate in the air. When people inhale these particles and gases, they can harm the heart and lungs.

Air pollution can occur in both outdoor and indoor environments.

Long-term exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. This includes heart attack, coronary heart disease, abnormal heart rhythms, cardiac arrest, heart failure and stroke.

People with existing heart conditions are most at risk of problems from air pollution.

Air pollution comes from many sources including:

  • exhaust fumes from cars, trucks and other vehicles (particularly those with diesel engines)
  • traffic-related pollution including tyre and brake wear
  • bushfires or fires for cooking or warmth
  • indoor woodfire heaters
  • agricultural activities (farming) and waste burning
  • outdoor power equipment and marine engines
  • industrial activities like manufacturing and food production
  • secondhand tobacco smoke
  • dust, dampness and mould
  • chemicals, cleaning products and indoor floor polishing equipment.  

We know that when people breathe in very small air pollution particles, this can affect the heart by:

  • damaging blood vessels so they become hard and narrow
  • increasing the risk of blood clots
  • increasing blood pressure
  • disrupting the electrical activity of the heart, which can lead to abnormal heart rhythms
  • changing the structure of the heart (in a similar way to what happens in early heart failure).

Air pollution is a global issue, which needs the cooperation of communities, governments and organisations. The Heart Foundation has been a key advocate for healthy built environments via Healthy Active by Design and other programs to encourage active healthy lives for all.  

There are some simple things you can do to help reduce air pollution and your exposure to it.

  • Know the air quality in your area. You can look this up on an interactive map on the Bureau of Meteorology website. If you know when air pollution levels are high, you can take steps to limit your exposure.
  • Where possible, walk or cycle in places where air pollution is lower. Or choose a time of day when air pollution levels are lower (for example, before or after peak hour).
  • If you have a heart condition, it’s especially important to avoid spending a lot of time in places that have higher air pollution levels, such as busy roads or near factories.
  • Walking or cycling (instead of driving) also helps to reduce air pollution.
  • Avoid indoor fires for cooking and warmth. If this isn’t possible, portable air purifiers can help reduce indoor air pollution.
  • Protect your lung and heart health by stopping smoking. Did you know the best way to quit is with support from Quitline (13 7848) and medicines like nicotine replacement therapy? Also avoid being exposed to secondhand smoke. 

Heatwaves 

A heatwave is an unusually high temperature that occurs at least three days in a row.

Over the past 20 years, there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves in Australia. Our heatwaves are also lasting longer. One of the main causes is climate change.

Heatwaves can be dangerous for people with existing health conditions, including heart conditions. People aged 65 years and older and people experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage are also at higher risk during a heatwave.

There are two main ways that heatwaves can affect your heart.

  • On hot days, your blood is redirected closer to the skin’s surface to help maintain your normal temperature. This means your heart needs to work harder to pump blood around the body.
  • You are also more likely to get dehydrated as your body sweats to keep you cool. This means your blood pressure can drop if you aren’t drinking enough water. When you’re dehydrated, your heart must work harder.

Here are our top tips for looking after yourself during a heatwave.  

Stay hydrated

  • Drink plenty of water (or follow your doctor’s advice on how much you should drink each day if you have heart failure).
  • Avoid alcohol, too much caffeine and drinks high in sugar. These drinks can make you more dehydrated.  

Keep cool

  • Stay indoors and use air conditioning if you have it. When outdoors, stick to the shade as much as possible.
  • Electric fans are also effective at keeping you cool. Avoid using them at very high temperatures (around 37 oC and above). This can speed up dehydration.
  • Take a cool shower or bath, or sponge or spray yourself with cool water.
  • Put your feet or your hands and forearms in a bucket of cool water.
  • Put crushed ice in a towel and place it around your neck or on your chest.
  • Wear loose, light-coloured clothing.
  • Reduce your level of physical activity when it’s hot. Take breaks often.  

Look after yourself and others

  • Plan ahead if you know a heatwave is coming. This might include doing your shopping ahead of time or making sure you have enough of your medicines. Being prepared means you can limit the amount of time you have to spend outside when it’s hot.
  • If you take medicines for a heart condition, your doctor might need to adjust them. This includes some medicines for blood pressure. Some medicines can also increase the risk of dehydration. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist for more information.
  • Keep your medicines stored in a cool, dry place below 25 oC or in the fridge. Read the consumer medicines information leaflet for storage information or ask your pharmacist.
  • Know the symptoms of heat-related illness. Symptoms include muscle pain or cramps, dizziness, strong thirst, headache, fainting, feeling tired or weak, nausea or vomiting and confusion. If you experience any of these symptoms, tell someone and speak to your doctor. If your symptoms are severe, call triple zero (000).
  • Keep in contact with family and friends. Let them know if you’re OK or if you need help.
  • Check on people who are isolated or might need help, especially if they have a heart condition or other chronic condition like diabetes.  

Bushfires  

Bushfires are increasingly common in Australia. They are becoming more widespread and severe due to climate change. Bushfires most commonly affect regional and remote locations, and the effects can be devastating. Bushfire smoke can also travel over long distances, meaning even people living in cities can be exposed. Bushfires are a common source of air pollution.

Smoke exposure can put increased stress on the heart and can be dangerous for people with heart conditions (such as heart failure and high blood pressure) and people aged 65 years and over. The bushfires in Australia over the summer period in 2019-2020 coincided with an increase in people going to hospital for heart attacks.

Bushfire smoke can contain harmful gases (carbon monoxide) and toxins. Bushfire smoke also creates tiny solid particles and airborne liquid droplets that you can’t see. This is called ‘particulate matter (PM)’. These small particles can cross the lungs into the bloodstream.

Being exposed to bushfire smoke might also increase the risk of cardiac arrest or heart attacks.

Exposure to bushfire smoke can cause symptoms including:

  • chest pain or tightness
  • eye, nose and throat irritation
  • difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
  • racing heart or palpitations  
  • tiredness.  

If you experience any of these symptoms, tell someone and speak to your doctor. If your symptoms are severe, call triple zero (000).

It might not be possible to completely avoid smoke from a nearby bushfire. But here are some key things you can do to look after yourself.

  • Plan ahead wherever possible. Make sure you have enough food, supplies and medicines to limit the amount of time you need to spend outside. Get in touch with friends or family as soon as possible if you need help. If you’re able to, help any family members, neighbours and friends if they are older, isolated or vulnerable. 
  • Stay indoors where possible and if it’s safe to do so. Keep your windows and doors shut when there’s smoke outside. Open them when the smoke disappears.
  • Limit outdoor physical activity (including walking) if you are in a smoke or fire-affected area, especially if the air quality is very poor or hazardous. Aim to exercise during parts of the day when air quality is better. Keep up to date with advice from your local government area on what to do. You can check air quality, here.
  • If you have air conditioning, switch it to recycle or recirculate which will help filter air particles.
  • Keep your medicine with you or close by and follow the advice of your doctor.
  • If possible, find cleaner, filtered air-conditioned spaces (for example, shopping centres, libraries). Consider staying with family members or friends if they live outside the smoke-affected area.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • N95 masks can provide protection against bushfire smoke and air pollution, but only if they are properly fitted. For more information, speak to your doctor or read more, here.  

What is the Heart Foundation doing about the environment, climate change and heart health?

Last reviewed: 02/12/2021

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