Vasanth Kumar, 34, is a non-smoker and teetotaler. The autorickshaw driver from Bommanahalli spends nearly 12 hours a day on the roads to provide for his wife and two children. Three months ago, his small world came crashing down.
At first, the pain in his left chest was bearable. With time, it aggravated and one day, he had to be taken to the state-run Sri Jayadeva Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences and Research. There, the doctors gave him some shocking news – he had suffered a heart attack due to blocked arteries.
The doctors were as puzzled as Vasant and his family were.
“Vasanth is one of the many patients we’ve seen who have suffered heart attacks with no known risk factors involved,” says Dr Rahul S Patil, consultant cardiologist and head of project Premature Coronary Artery Disease (PCAD) at the institute. “We are seeing an increase in the number of young age heart attacks. Air pollution is one of the causes.”
Prolonged hours on the road, surrounded by vehicle emissions, impacts the heart, the ongoing study at the institute has found. It covers 2,000 heart patients below 40 years who have been visiting the hospital since April 2017. Over 25% of the patients are either auto drivers or cab drivers, while 65% are from Bengaluru.
“I don’t drink nor smoke. Even the doctors don’t know what may have led to the heart attack,” says Vasanth. “I am more cautious these days. But I have returned to work. I am an autorickshaw driver and that’s my job. I have to continue working.”
Researchers at Sri Jayadeva Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences and Research are charting the frequented routes of these patients and to study the impact, mobile air pollution monitors have to be set up. St John’s Research Institute too has joined the study.
“We want to understand the effect of traffic and air pollution on the working population travelling in cars,” says Patil. “In the studied population, blood is hyper viscous and unable to flow freely through the arteries. We have learned that there is an abnormal fluctuation in their blood pressure and heart rate, which are known to be detrimental to the heart.”
Studies across the world have found that air pollutants lead to cardiovascular diseases such as artery blockages leading to heart attacks and death of heart tissue due to oxygen deprivation, leading to permanent heart damage. While it is still being studied exactly how pollutants weaken the heart, scientists say it is similar to how respiratory disease is caused – by inflammation and oxidative stress.