Research Finds Air Pollution Reduces Chances of Survival Following Heart Transplant

Heart transplant recipients who live in areas where they are exposed to high levels of air pollution may have a lower chance of survival after surgery, according to new research published this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The retrospective study sought to examine the role a key environmental factor plays in outcomes following heart transplantation by measuring patients’ average air pollution exposure based on their zip code of residence and then following up with those same patients five years after surgery. The study involved a total of 21,800 transplant patients with 86,713 patient-years of follow-up and at a median follow-up of 4.8 years, 5,208 of the patients (23.9%) had died.

Adverse Effects of Exposure to Air Pollution

The purpose of this study was to analyze the connection between exposure to particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (PM 2.5), which includes soot, chemicals, dust and biofuel emissions, and mortality following heart transplantation. In order to estimate the link between pollution exposure and overall mortality, the researchers used data from the United States for Organ Sharing (UNOS) database and looked at mortality data in patients who received a heart transplant between 2004 and 2015. They then compared the data to estimates of fine particulate matter concentrations for each calendar year during which a heart transplant patient was at risk for death.

It is accepted as fact that heart transplant recipients are at high risk for mortality and the study authors sought to determine whether exposure to particulate matter in pollution factored into that risk. Particulate matter contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small they can be unknowingly inhaled and result in serious health problems. According to the EPA, “Most particles form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles.” Some particles with a diameter of less than 10 micrometers can get deep into the lungs and some can even enter the bloodstream. Of these potentially harmful particles, particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or PM 2.5, pose the greatest risk to human health.

Pollution Contributes to Mortality in Transplant Patients

Nearly 22,000 heart transplant patients were included in the study and the average age at the time of transplantation was 52. According to the study findings, heart transplant recipients living in areas with high levels of PM 2.5 had a 26% increased risk of death during the five years after transplantation. The exact reason why air pollution increases the risk of mortality among heart transplant recipients is not known, but the researchers suggest that it may be associated with systemic immune activation or solid organ rejection. “Insensitivity of effects to time after transplantation suggests that air pollution contributes to multiple time-variant causes of mortality in transplant patients, and points to pervasive systemic effects that await unambiguous identification,” the study authors wrote.

Lawsuits Over Harmful Air Pollution

We know that air pollution can have an adverse impact on the environment and human health and individuals who have been affected by air pollution from industrial plants may be able to pursue compensation from the companies responsible for producing air pollution emissions. Just this month, Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Corp agreed to pay $8.5 million to resolve allegations raised in a 2017 class action lawsuit that the company negligently allowed air pollution emissions from its Clairton Coke Works facility. The class action lawsuit was brought by two Clairton residents who claim that the air pollution prevented them from enjoying their property because the air smelled bad or was not safe for them to breathe. This particular lawsuit only dealt with loss of property value and nuisances from the pollution produced by the plant, not with the potential health risks the pollution posed for residents.

In August, U.S. Steel was named in another lawsuit filed by an environmental group claiming that the steelmaker has failed to report the release of pollutants from three of its Pennsylvania plants. “It’s critically important that industries promptly report releases of air pollution – as required by law – so that people living downwind can protect their families and so that local health authorities can take appropriate actions to protect public health,” said an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, which represents the Clean Air Council. One of the pollutants U.S. Steel is accused of not reporting unpermitted releases of is hydrogen sulfide, a colorless, flammable and highly toxic gas. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, acute exposure to hydrogen sulfide can cause nausea, dizziness, headaches, tremors and skin irritation, among other adverse health effects. At high concentrations, hydrogen sulfide exposure can produce extremely rapid unconsciousness and death.

Air Pollution Causes Millions of Deaths Each Year

Approximately seven million people die every year from exposure to outdoor and household air pollution, the World Health Organization reports, and even short-term exposure to low levels of air pollution can lead to serious health problems. According to WHO, inhaling fine particles in polluted air can cause a wide range of potentially life-threatening diseases like stroke, lung cancer, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, pneumonia and other respiratory infections. If you think you have been adversely affected by exposure to harmful air pollution from a power plant or some other source, contact an experienced attorney as soon as possible to discuss your legal options. You may be entitled to financial compensation for your medical bills and other expenses, which a qualified attorney can help you pursue.