A team of researchers from the University at Albany, King Abdulaziz University, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, and Brigham Young University recently conducted one of the first studies assessing the association between exposure to fine particles in the air (PM2.5) and cardiopulmonary (heart or lung) health outcomes in Saudi Arabia. Results showed that exposure significantly increased cardiopulmonary morbidity risk, with females ages 0-14 years more at risk for respiratory disorder than males. The complete study can be found in the January 2019 Science of the Total Environment.
Although air pollution is one of the largest contributors to global mortality and PM2.5 exposure has been linked with adverse health impacts, fairly little research has been conducted on PM2.5 in the Middle East. With several studies indicating that Saudi Arabia in particular faces high concentrations of air pollution, the country is a critical location for a closer look at how PM2.5 exposure may impact health.
For this study, the researchers analyzed day-to-day changes in air pollution and cardiopulmonary health outcomes in Jeddah, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia with a population of approximately 3.85 million. Home to a tropical arid climate, Jeddah faces warm winters and hot summers, with gusty winds and occasional sandstorms in winter and spring.
PM2.5 concentrations were collected each day at three different locations in the city for six consecutive weeks in each season. These concentrations were analyzed in relation to hospital data on those admitted to King Abdulaziz University Hospital or Soliman Fakeeh Hospital due to cardiopulmonary issues.
The researchers found that respiratory morbidity risk was immediate following exposure to PM2.5 and decreased significantly within two days. Females aged 0-14 had the highest risk for respiratory disorder, while males of the same age group also had a high relative risk. It was determined that this might be related to the children’s proximity to PM2.5 emission sources, along with other factors like living conditions and school environments. Children overall were more at risk for respiratory disorder than adults, which may be due to children spending more time outdoors and therefore having more exposure to PM2.5. With rapid metabolisms that enable chemicals to penetrate their biological systems more quickly, they are predisposed to the effects of chemical pollutants.
For cardiovascular disease, relative risk was immediate after exposure to PM2.5 and increased several days after exposure. This risk was statistically significant for those who were 31-45 years old. Males aged 46+ were more at risk for cardiovascular disease than females in any age group, possibly due differences in exposure to air pollution. In Saudi Arabia, it is a cultural norm for men occupy outdoor work while women stay at home, possibly accounting for the difference in risk. The elevated risk for elderly men may also be linked to the fact that they most likely have faced exposure to pollutants for a longer time period than their younger counterparts.
This study, by sampling air quality and its relation to heart and lung problems in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, fills a gap in environmental pollution and public health research. The findings can be used as a launching pad for future investigations into the impacts of PM2.5 on heart and lung health in the Middle East; in addition, they can be used to inform and guide the process of improving existing policies regarding air pollution.