Pesticides and heavy metals in the soil can have harmful effects on the cardiovascular system, according to a review article published today in Cardiovascular Research, a journal of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).1
“Soil pollution is a less visible threat to human health than dirty air,” says author Professor Thomas Münzel of the University Medical Center Mainz, Germany. “But evidence is mounting that pollutants in soil can impair cardiovascular health through a number of mechanisms, including inflammation and disruption of the body’s natural clock.”
Pollution of air, water and soil is responsible for at least nine million deaths every year. More than 60% of pollution-caused diseases and deaths are due to cardiovascular diseases, such as chronic ischemic heart disease, heart attacks, strokes and cardiac arrhythmias.
This article highlights the relationships between soil pollution and human health, with a particular focus on cardiovascular disease. Soil pollutants include heavy metals, pesticides and plastics. The authors argue that contaminated soil can lead to cardiovascular disease by increasing oxidative stress in blood vessels (with more “bad” free radicals and fewer “good” antioxidants), by causing inflammation and by disrupting the biological clock (circadian rhythm).
Dirty soil can enter the body by breathing in desert dust, fertilizer crystals or plastic particles. Heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, plastics, and organic toxins (for example, in pesticides) can also be consumed orally. Soil pollutants wash into rivers creating dirty water that can be consumed.
Pesticides have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. While workers in the agricultural and chemical industries are the most exposed, the general public can ingest pesticides from contaminated food, soil and water.
Cadmium is a heavy metal that occurs naturally in small amounts in air, water, soil and food, and also comes from industrial and agricultural sources. Food is the main source of cadmium in non-smokers. The article states that population studies have shown mixed results on the relationship between cadmium and cardiovascular disease and cites a Korean study showing that middle-aged Koreans with high levels of cadmium in the blood had an increased risk of stroke and hypertension.
Lead is a naturally occurring toxic metal with environmental pollution from mining, smelting, manufacturing and recycling. Studies have found associations between high blood lead levels and cardiovascular disease, including coronary heart disease, heart attacks and stroke, in women and in people with diabetes. Further studies have shown a higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease associated with exposure to arsenic, a naturally occurring metalloid whose levels can rise due to industrial processes and the use of contaminated water to irrigate crops.
The paper states: “While soil pollution from heavy metals and its association with cardiovascular disease is a particular problem in low- and middle-income countries, as their populations are disproportionately exposed to these environmental pollutants, it is becoming a problem for every country in the world due to the increasing globalization of food supply chains and the incorporation of these heavy metals with fruits, vegetables and meat.”
The potential hazards of contaminated dust in the air are listed. Desert dust can travel long distances, and research has shown that particles from soils in China and Mongolia were linked to an increased risk of heart attacks in Japan. The rate of visits to the cardiovascular emergency room in Japan was 21% higher on days with heavy exposure to Asian dust.
While there are no population studies on the cardiovascular health effects of nano- and microplastics in humans, research has shown that these particles can reach the bloodstream, making it plausible that they can travel to the organs and cause systemic inflammation and cardiovascular disease.
Professor Münzel said: “More studies are needed on the combined effect of multiple soil contaminants on cardiovascular disease, as we are rarely exposed to a single toxicant. There is an urgent need for research into how nano- and microplastics can prevent cardiovascular disease. Until we know more, it seems prudent to wear a face mask to limit exposure to windblown dust, filter water to remove contaminants, and buy food grown on healthy soil.”
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