Can air pollution cause heart palpitations?

In this article, we will discuss whether air pollution can cause heart palpitations. Furthermore, we will enumerate various pollutants that contribute towards heart palpitations.

Can air pollution cause heart palpitations?

Yes, air pollution has been shown to be associated with various cardiovascular diseases, with heart palpitations, also known as cardiac arrhythmias, being one of the issues.

Heart palpitations refers to the sensation that the heart is racing, pounding, fluttering or skipping a beat. It does not present any additional symptoms.

Yet, it can play a role as a causative factor to serious issues such as strokes, heart attacks, or heart failure, all of which can prove to be fatal.

Air pollution refers to the presence of undesirable particles or substances in the ambient air. These substances can affect our health adversely, with the intensity depending upon two main factors – concentration of the pollutant, and the duration of exposure to it.

Over time, the issue of air pollution has worsened, mainly due to anthropogenic (i.e., related to humans) activities, such as traffic-related pollution, combustion of fossil fuels and wood, deforestation, emission of toxic gases from industrial activities, and much more.

What does research say?

Numerous studies performed in various regions of the world have shown the adverse effects of air pollution on human health, especially on the respiratory system and the cardiovascular system. 

Given that these systems are first exposed to air pollution, the adverse effects are more pronounced for them. The various pollutants that are linked to heart palpitations are:

  • Carbon monoxide (CO)
  • Particulate matter (PM)
  • Ozone (O3)
  • Lead (Pb)
  • Nitrates (NO3)
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Carbon monoxide (CO)

Carbon monoxide is a serious air pollutant, and in higher concentrations, it can prove to be lethal. It is a colorless, odourless gas, therefore it is hard to detect its presence.

Carbon monoxide is formed from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and wood. It is also formed from smoking cigarettes.

Carbon monoxide forms a strong bond with haemoglobin, the compound present in red blood cells (RBCs), which is responsible for transportation of oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, and carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs.

Thus, carbon monoxide hampers the ability of oxygen transportation. This causes strain on the heart muscles and the chest, which in turn give rise to heart palpitations, in the form of cardiac arrhythmia and tightness of chest.

Particulate matter (PM)

Particulate matter refers to fine particles in the sub-micron range which are suspended in the air. They are of two types – coarse particulate matter (PM10), and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

Particulate matter is a prevalent pollutant in the current scenario, as it originates from numerous natural as well as anthropogenic activities.  It has shown to have serious effects on human health, particularly on the cardiovascular system.

Out of the various types of PM, the worst is soot. Soot, or black carbon, refers to amorphous particles composed entirely of carbon atoms, which are generated as a byproduct of combustion of fossil fuels and firewood.

Several studies have shown the association of inhalation of soot particles to cardiac arrhythmia.

Ozone (O3)

Ozone is a colourless, pungent gas that consists of three oxygen atoms, highly reactive and with a high oxidizing power. 

Ozone is naturally present in the higher layers of the atmosphere, where it absorbs the harmful UV rays of the sun.

 However, when present in the lower atmosphere layers, it acts as a pollutant, and adversely affects the cardiovascular system.

An increase of air ozone levels has also been associated with a rise in risks related to arrhythmia, especially for the elderly and people with pre-existing heart or respiratory diseases.

Lead (Pb)

Lead is a heavy metal which earlier was used as an additive in fuels for motor vehicles to increase the efficiency of combustion. 

However, it was banned when the negative aspects of lead pollution came to light. Since then, levels of lead in the atmosphere have fallen significantly.

Nowadays, the main sources of lead in the air are industrial emissions, ores, and from aircrafts that use leaded jet fuel. Exposure to lower levels of lead causes hypertension.

Studies have shown that exposure to lead in the air can cause heart palpitations, with effects more pronounced in the elderly and people with pre-existing heart diseases.

This is because lead forms lead acetate in the atmosphere, which when inhaled can interfere with the normal working of the heart by impairing cardiac conduction, causing heart palpitations.

Nitrous oxides (NOx)

NOx species refers to various compounds that contain nitrogen and oxygen atoms in varying numbers. These are a pollutant of concern, as they increase the risk of respiratory infection. 

NOx are primarily traffic-related pollutants, since they are emitted from vehicular exhausts.

Clinical studies to find a link between NOx species and heart diseases showed increased oxidative stress, which can cause heart palpitations.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

VOCs refer to a variety of organic compounds that are emitted from certain materials in the form of a gas. These compounds are present in common household items such as paints, solvents, cleaning products, cosmetics, and fuels.

VOCs are also generated as a byproduct of fuel combustion, and are part of the emissions from certain industries that manufacture chemicals, dyes, solvents, and so on.

VOCs have shown to induce heart palpitations in people. A study by Ma et al. performed on 62 hairdresser assistants working in hair salons in Taipei, Taiwan.

The study showed that exposure to VOCs can affect the cardiovascular system, with heart palpitations being one of the symptoms.

What are the various sources of air pollution?

Air pollution is not just an outdoor issue, it is an indoor issue as well. Indoor air pollution can occur due to infiltration of the polluted outdoor air from windows and doors, or simply from sources within the house.

According to research, pollution of the indoor air is linked to various sources such as:

  • Smoke
  • Household products

The contributing factors to outdoor air pollution which are linked to heart palpitations are:

  • Traffic
  • Industrial emissions
  • Agricultural activities

Indoor air pollution

It is important to keep the indoor air clean. A study shows that an average individual spends around 90% of their total life indoors. 

In huge cities, outdoor air pollution can infiltrate the indoor air, and when combined with certain indoor pollution, they have serious health implications. The following sources of indoor air pollution are linked with heart palpitations:

Smoke

Smoking is one the worst air pollutants, and can have serious health implications not  just on smokers, but also on secondhand smokers. 

Cigarette smoke contains a variety of toxic substances, which have adverse effects on the cardiovascular system. 

They can trigger heart palpitations, which manifest in the form of tightness in the chest, irregular heartbeat, or simply a pounding sensation.

Smoke from other sources such as wood burning stoves, furnaces, etc. give rise to soot, a particulate matter composed entirely of carbon. 

These particles when inhaled cause cardiac arrhythmias, and chest tightness, which are more pronounced in older people and people with pre-existing heart conditions.

Household products

Household products refer to products used for various purposes in household activities such as paints, cleaning products, solvents, dyes, cosmetics, perfumes, and so on. 

If these aren’t used adequately, they can be dangerous for health, especially for the cardiovascular system.

Paint and solvents such as mineral spirits, turpentine, methanol, and xylene, release fumes which contain VOCs  which put stress on the lungs and heart, thereby contributing to heart palpitations. 

In old houses, if the paint is old, there are chances that it contains lead. With the addition of lead, there is an increased risk for episodes of heart palpitations.

Lastly, fumigation products and other chemicals such as pesticides, insecticides, etc. are also a source. The fumes arising from them are toxic, and initial exposures can cause heart palpitations.

Therefore, care should be taken into storing household products, especially the ones that are poisonous in nature.

Outdoor air pollution

Outdoor air pollution is a major issue in the present day scenario. Other than its adverse implications on the climate, it also bears negative implications on human health directly. We shall discuss the various contributors to outdoor air pollution.

Traffic

Traffic-related pollution is one of the most prevalent issues in the current day scenario. With the rapid uncontrolled rate of urbanisation, a growth in the number of vehicles has also been seen with time. 

Traffic-related pollution consists of three components – the vehicular emission from exhausts arising from combustion of fuel, the resuspension of road dust, and the constituents of the rubber tire which are generated from the regular wear and tear.

Particles such as soot, lead, etc., and gases such as VOCs, NOx species, and carbon monoxide are generated from traffic-related pollution. 

All of these can cause heart palpitations, characterised by chest pain, arrhythmia, and a sensation of pounding of the heart.

Under favourable conditions, the VOCs and NOx species generated from vehicular emissions interact with each other and create ozone, which causes smog. Ozone is an irritant and in higher concentrations, causes heart palpitations.

Industrial activities

In industrialised cities, air pollution is a prevalent issue. Industries emit wastes that are specific to the type of product manufactured by the industry.

Typical emissions from industries contain soot, NOx species, sulphur dioxide, particulate matter, VOCs, fly ash, and so on. 

These particles, other than the effects on various systems, also affect the cardiovascular system, and can cause heart palpitations.

Agricultural activities

Agriculture is a prevalent activity, and in certain countries such as India, is the major source of revenue for the masses. 

However, with time, faulty agricultural practices, such as excessive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides, overgrazing, ‘slash and burn’ cultivation, etc., have contributed to water pollution as well as air pollution.

Such activities give rise to pollutants such as VOCs, nitrates, carbon monoxide, soot, etc., thereby causing heart palpitations.

Other FAQs about Air Quality that you may be interested in.

Can Air Pollution Cause Asthma?

Can Air Pollution Cause Cancer?

Does air quality worsen at night?

Conclusion

We have discussed how air pollution increases the chances of heart palpitations. We have seen how certain pollutants present in the air can cause heart palpitations, and discussed the various sources, both indoor and outdoor, of these pollutants.

FAQs: Can Air Pollution Cause Heart Palpitations?

How do I keep the indoor air clean?

The best way to keep indoor air clean is by the following methods:

Improving ventilation of the house, which would help to dilute the indoor air pollution level by introducing outdoor air, and carry the pollutants out of the house. 

Furthermore, you can install exhaust fans at your windows or in the central air ducts to improve the efficiency of ventilation.

Using an air dehumidifier to reduce the relative humidity of the home. 

A high humidity level can promote the growth of mold and mildews, which give rise to spores, which can cause issues such as wheezing, irritation in the throat, difficulty in breathing, asthma, etc.

Avoid smoking or combustion of fuels inside the house, as these processes adversely affect the indoor air quality. 

Cigarette smoke contains several toxins, which can act as irritants to the airway and affect the respiration system, thereby triggering an asthma attack.

You can invest in an air purifier. The best method for reducing PM concentrations is by using an air purifier. Depending upon the size of the basement, an adequate air purifier should be used. 


Air purifiers with HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters are best suited for indoor purposes. The presence of an activated charcoal filter and a UV light further increases the efficiency of the filters.

How can I tell if my heart palpitations are due to air pollution or other factors?

You can differentiate whether your heart palpitations are due to air pollution or from other reasons by the following methods:

  • Check the environment when you notice heart palpitations. If it happens in the same environment, there might be a chance it is due to pollution.
  • Observe other symptoms. If you notice that you face other issues, particularly those related to the respiratory system, such as wheezing, coughing, irritation in the nose and throat, it could suggest that your palpitations could be from air pollution.

References

  • Xuping Song, Yu Liu, Yuling Hu, Xiaoyan Zhao, Jinhui Tian, Guowu Ding, Shigong Wang. Short-Term Exposure to Air Pollution and Cardiac Arrhythmia: A Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016 Jul; 13(7): 642. Published online 2016 Jun 28. doi: 10.3390/ijerph13070642
  • Srebot, V., Gianicolo, E.A., Rainaldi, G. et al. Ozone and cardiovascular injury. Cardiovasc Ultrasound 7, 30 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1186/1476-7120-7-30
  • Badalzadeh Reza, Norouzzadeh Ali, Heydari Azhdar, Asgari Alireza, Khoshbaten Ali. Effects of low-level lead exposure on blood pressure and function of the rat isolated heart. Indian J Pharmacol. 2008 Mar-Apr; 40(2): 69–72. doi: 10.4103/0253-7613.41041
  • C.-M. Ma, L.-Y. Lin, H.-W. Chen, L.-C. Huang, J.-F. Li, K.-J. Chuang, Volatile organic compounds exposure and cardiovascular effects in hair salons, Occupational Medicine, Volume 60, Issue 8, December 2010, Pages 624–630, https://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/kqq128
  • Mark S. Link, Heike Luttmann-Gibson, Joel Schwartz, Murray A. Mittleman, Benjamin Wessler, Diane R. Gold, Douglas W. Dockery, Francine Laden, Acute Exposure to Air Pollution Triggers Atrial Fibrillation, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Volume 62, Issue 9, 2013, Pages 816-825, ISSN 0735-1097, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2013.05.043.

Web references

Environmental Hazards Weigh Heavy on the Heart:

https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2015-08/documents/ehwhh_english_100-f-09-043.pdf

Basic Information about Lead Air Pollution:
https://www.epa.gov/lead-air-pollution/basic-information-about-lead-air-pollution

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