To assess the impact of long-term residential traffic exposure on the heart, Dr. Barbara Hoffmann, head of the unit of environmental epidemiology at the University of Duisburg-Essen, and colleagues used "electron-beam computed tomography" to measure calcium build-up in the arteries.
Compared with people who lived more than 200 meters, or 642 feet, from major traffic, the risk of coronary artery calcification was 63 percent higher for people living within 50 meters (160 feet) of heavy traffic, and 34 percent higher for those who were between 51 meters and 100 meters (164 to 328 feet) away. The risk was 8 percent higher for those living 100 meters to 200 meters (328 to 642 feet) away.
Hoffmann compares the damage wrought by traffic fumes to the effects of aging. "Living within 100 meters of a major road compared to people living further away amounts to a similar difference in coronary calcification as six months of aging," she said.
Her team is currently examining all study participants again to determine whether those living close to heavy traffic have suffered a greater increase in coronary calcification during the past five years.
So what can individuals do, short of moving away from heavily traveled roads, to stave off cardiovascular disease?
The best thing is focus on modifiable factors, such as keeping blood pressure and diabetes in check, lowering cholesterol, increasing physical activity and quitting smoking, Hoffmann said.
Reducing air pollution is a larger challenge.
In big U.S. cities, state and local agencies are required to report the Air Quality Index -- a measure of how pristine or polluted the air is -- each day, says AirNow, a federal government Web site on air quality. Depending on the level of concern, people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children may be advised to remain indoors
"That's just a Band-Aid on a public health problem,"
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