Despite the lack of media attention, air pollution is one of the great killers of our time, causing more deaths than malaria and AIDS combined. And even when it doesn't kill, it certainly affects quality of life and makes worse countless health problems (asthma, lung cancer, hearth disease, etc). The real solution to this problem is obvious: Eliminate sources of air pollution, at least the ones that we can do something about (ie. not volcanoes and forest fires caused by lightning). But until we can reach that ideal, what if there was just a pill that you could take that would protect you against some of the negative effects of breathing in dirty air?
Well, maybe that's not such a science-fiction concept after all. A recent study of 1,923 U.S. women found that statins, drugs that are prescribed to those at risk of heart attacks and strokes to lower cholesterol levels, could also have an accident side benefit:
“Health impacts from spikes in particulates in the air are substantial. Statins seem to protect not only lungs from these impacts but the heart, too,” said Dr. Norman Edelman, the American Lung Association's senior medical advisor.
The women who took statins ( Lipitor and Zocor are some of the more well-known brand names) saw no association between PM2.5, the tiny particles emitted mostly by burning diesel and other fossil fuels that are a major source of air pollution, and the proteins the reveal inflammation. In the control group, who took no statins, the correlation between PM2.5 and inflammation was quite strong.
It’s not the first time researchers have noticed this link: University of Michigan researchers found decreased blood indicators of inflammation in people who took statins in a study of 92 people in Boston. A national study of 5,778 people also reported that statins canceled out the presence of signs of inflammation from PM2.5, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide.
Why is this important? Because inflammation appears to be a key factor in heart disease.
“The older thinking was that plaque in coronary arteries caused heart attacks,” Edelman said. “Now the thinking is that it’s also due to some living tissue under plague that gets inflamed and that disrupts the plaque. We already knew statins ameliorate heart disease, and always thought it was through lipids, but here’s a new pathway.”
The science isn't quite at the level needed for statins to be prescribed specifically for air pollution, but this could happen if research is conclusive.