Haze: First skin irritation and breathing woes, then heart attacks

The Star, 25 Jun 2013

PETALING JAYA: It’s not just skin irritation and breathing problems. Prolonged hazy conditions can lead to heart attacks, strokes and lung and kidney problems.

Consultant cardiologist Dr David Quek said vulnerable groups would be at higher risk of experiencing these harmful effects if the haze were to go on for weeks or months.

“This applies especially to older people and those with kidney or diabetic problems, as well as heavy smokers with impaired and chronic lung conditions,” he said on reports that the transboundary haze from Indonesia could last until August.

Dr Quek noted that it was also possible that deaths could be recorded from complications brought about by the haze and smog.

He added that airborne chemicals and certain particulate matter (PM) could “penetrate deep down through the lungs” and get into the body’s system.

There are studies linking air pollutants to heart disease and increased mortality risks, which reinforce the understanding that any kind of poisonous air pollutant could have harmful effects.

However, Dr Quek cautioned that it was difficult to quantify the individual effects of these chemicals.

“Nevertheless, the effects they can have include constricting the blood vessels in the heart and brain, as well as interfering with normal functioning of multiple organs,” he said, adding that long-term exposure to such air pollutants could lead to higher cancer risks in the long term.

He cited a study by Prof Narayan Sastry in 2000 on mortality effects from the 1997 haze, which found that the number of people aged between 65 and 74 in Kuala Lumpur, who died of non-traumatic mortality, had increased for up to 18 days.

“He showed there were indeed more deaths, especially among the old, where the risks increased by 70% ,” said Dr Quek.

A study carried out this year in the United States found that the higher the level of air pollution, the greater the thickening of the carotid artery.

The American Heart Association issued a 2004 statement on air pollution and heart disease which affirmed that at the very least, short-term exposure to elevated PM “significantly contributes” to increased acute cardiovascular mortality.

“Hospital admissions for several cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases acutely increase in response to higher ambient PM concentrations,” it added.