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Workplace Pollution Linked to Heart Abnormalities in Latino Community

A study published Wednesday reveals members of the Latino community who are exposed to toxic pollutants at work are more likely to develop heart abnormalities — findings that help fill the cardiovascular research gap for this underrepresented group.

(CN) — A study published Wednesday reveals members of the Latino community who are exposed to toxic pollutants at work are more likely to develop heart abnormalities — findings that help fill the cardiovascular research gap for this underrepresented group.

Published in the open-access Journal of the American Heart Association, the study discusses how the Latino/Hispanic community is disproportionately affected by pollutants in the workplace. Although heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, it is the number two cause of death among these individuals right behind cancer.

The researchers looked specifically at exposure to smoke from burning wood, vehicle exhaust — which was the most prevalent — pesticides, and metals like manganese, lead, or mercury, all of which are responsible for heart defects that can lead to disease. These pollutants are known carcinogens, but can also be the cause of several other ailments including stroke, heart attack, heart failure, irregular heart rhythm and death.

"Prior studies have focused on the effects of exposures where people live. And in those studies, people with Hispanic or Latinx backgrounds have been underrepresented," said co-author Jean Claude Uwamungu, a medical doctor and cardiology fellow in training at Montefiore Health System/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "We looked specifically at a population of Hispanic/Latinx adults to assess the relationship between exposures at work and their heart health."

Latinos face an abundance of hardships including language barriers, lack of access to health care and fewer resources in general. They also work some of the most important yet dangerous jobs such as farm work, auto repair and construction, putting them more at risk of exposure to toxic substances. Yet there is little research analyzing the relation between their environments and their health, which is what the authors sought to address.

The team conducted surveys to observe how often participants were exposed to toxic pollutants, and performed ultrasounds on 782 adult members of the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCSL/SOL). Participants were on average 52.9 years old, 52% were women, and they came from Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Central American or South American backgrounds. All lived in the Bronx, Chicago, Miami or San Diego.

The results found that each toxin affected the individuals’ cardiac output — the heart’s efficiency in pumping oxygenated blood throughout the body. If there is an issue with the heart, it can affect the rest of the body in several ways.

Those exposed to burning wood showed a 3.1% decrease in the left ventricle’s ability to pump blood, a sure sign of a decrease in cardiac output. If the left ventricle fails other heart problems can arise, including fluid buildup in the lungs. This is associated with a ‘crackling’ sound within the lungs when a person inhales and can result in poor oxygenation in the body.

Vehicle exhaust exposure led to decreased left ventricular longitudinal strain, which is related to the heart’s ability to contract, and decreased right ventricular systolic function, negatively impacting the heart’s cardiac output overall. Right-sided ventricular heart failure causes issues such as peripheral edema — swelling of the arms and legs — and can result in blood failing to reach the lungs to become oxygenated. 

Pesticide exposure and exposure to toxic metals affect the left ventricle’s ability to contract, though metal exposure also increased the left ventricular muscle mass, putting individuals more at risk for heart disease. While generally a muscle increasing in size is something that is to be desired, this can be very dangerous when it comes to the heart. If it needs to exert more energy to pump and therefore begins to increase in muscle mass, the chambers of the heart can shrink — leaving less room for blood.

Furthermore, those who worked their jobs for an average of 18 years and were constantly exposed to any of these toxins exhibited atypical heart function and structure. The authors also said that they did not find any notable connections between these phenomena and smokers versus nonsmokers, suggesting that they are not significantly interconnected.

"These findings support the notion that where people live and work affects cardiovascular health. Policies and interventions to protect the environment and safeguard workers' health could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease such as heart failure especially among low income occupations that have higher exposure to these harmful pollutants," Uwamungu said. "Health care professionals should routinely ask patients about exposure to pollutants at work to guide prevention, diagnosis and treatment of early stages of heart disease."

"However, the findings of this study have public health relevance given the potential for heart damage with long-term occupational exposure to these pollutants," Uwamungu concluded.

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