Skip to content

Air Pollution May Increase Risk of CVD by Activating Arterial Inflammation

In This Article

  • In a retrospective study, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that air pollution has a detrimental impact on cardiovascular health
  • Researchers linked fine particulate matter from air pollution to the production of inflammatory cells in bone marrow, which can lead to arterial inflammation
  • Most of the patients in the study were exposed to air pollution that fell below the unhealthy thresholds as defined by the World Health Organization, suggesting that no level of air pollution is truly safe

It is known that tiny particles of air pollution—called fine particulate matter—can have a range of effects on health, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). A recent study at Massachusetts General Hospital, led by Michael T. Osborne, MD, an assistant in medicine in the Cardiology Division, and Shady Abohashem, MDCardiovascular Imaging fellow at the Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at Mass General, and colleagues has revealed that fine particulate matter can activate the production of inflammatory cells in bone marrow, leading to inflammation of the arteries.

The research team conducted a retrospective study including 503 patients without cardiovascular disease or cancer who had undergone imaging tests at Mass General for various medical reasons. Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality monitors, researchers used participants' residential addresses to estimate their exposure to air pollution.

Over a median follow-up of 4.1 years, 40 patients experienced major cardiovascular events. The highest risk among participants was associated with higher levels of fine particular matter near their homes. The risk was elevated even after accounting for cardiovascular risk factors, socioeconomic factors and other key confounders.

Imaging tests assessing the state of internal organs and tissues showed that these participants also had higher bone marrow activity, indicating a heightened production of inflammatory cells (a process called leukopoiesis) and elevated inflammation of the arteries. Additional analyses revealed that leukopoiesis in response to air pollution exposure is a trigger that causes arterial inflammation.

Dr. Abohashem said that these findings implicate air pollution exposure as an underrecognized risk factor for CVD, and that beyond pollution mitigation, further research is necessary to develop therapeutic targets for prevention.

Dr. Osborne also noted that most of the study population had air pollution exposures that fell below the unhealthy thresholds, suggesting that any level of air pollution is potentially dangerous for cardiovascular health.

Visit the Corrigan Minehan Heart Center

Refer a patient to the Corrigan Minehan Heart Center

Related topics


A series of 18F-FDG-PET/CT studies at Massachusetts General Hospital have demonstrated a multiorgan neuroimmune pathway that explains how common, chronic stressors increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.


Cardiovascular disease, higher body mass index and CD4 count <200 cells/mm3 were significantly associated with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease among adults with HIV, even after adjustment for traditional cardiovascular disease risk factors.