Highway pollution boosts heart risk

Living near a highway or major road is great for commuters -- but it's absolutely terrible for your health, as exposure to air pollutants from cars and even the asphalt itself can cause everything from heart disease to brain damage.

That's a lot of risk for a little bit of convenience.

In one new study, researchers found a link between heart attack and nearly every one of the major air pollutants found around busy roads -- including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and particulate matter.

The only pollutant that won't increase your risk of a heart attack is ozone, at least according to the new study presented at the recent EuroPRevent 2013 congress in Rome.

But if I were you, I wouldn't go out of my way to inhale ozone, either, since there are plenty of other ways it can harm you.

Most highway air pollutants come in the form of fine particles. And in the study, every 2.4-micrometer increase in those air pollutants increased the risk of aortic calcification -- a sign of atherosclerosis -- by a fifth.

Living closer to the road also increased that risk, with every 100 meters boosting the odds by 10 percent.

Even highway noise appeared to increase the risk of heart problems -- and that's not the only organ on the line here. A second new study links air pollution to brain damage, specifically the type of damage that leads to dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Mice exposed to common air pollutants and nanoparticles for three hours had increases in beta amyloid -- the brain plaques linked to Alzheimer's -- of between 72 percent and 129 percent.

I know it's mice and it's only three hours, but the study was conducted to follow up on research on residents of famously polluted Mexico City. That one found higher levels of those same plaques in city residents -- even children -- when compared to people who live in towns with clean air.

But as the other new study shows, you don't have to live in Mexico City to be exposed to dangerously high levels of pollutants. It can happen anywhere -- and along with heart and brain risks, studies have linked common highway pollutants to allergies, asthma and even cancer.

And that's not even getting into the risks that come from the chemicals used in the pavement itself -- or that fact that many roads still have high levels of lead in the dirt around them leftover from the days of leaded gasoline.

If you can't change your address, maybe it's time to change your habits. In some polluted cities, people regularly go outside wearing dust masks or surgical masks.

It's not common here, but it's not a bad idea either -- especially if you're going outside to do some work in the yard.

In addition, make sure to vacuum regularly to rid your home of dust, which can be full of pollutants from nearby highways. Definitely wear that mask while you clean up.

Install a quality air purifier with a HEPA filter. If the filter can be cleaned, clean it regularly. And if it can't be cleaned, be sure to replace it frequently.

You may not be able to eliminate that exposure, but you certainly can cut down and minimize the risks facing yourself and your family.