Thorax 60:455-461 doi:10.1136/thx.2004.024836
  • Environmental exposure

Traffic related pollution and heart rate variability in a panel of elderly subjects

  1. J Schwartz1,
  2. A Litonjua2,
  3. H Suh1,
  4. M Verrier2,
  5. A Zanobetti1,
  6. M Syring2,
  7. B Nearing3,
  8. R Verrier3,
  9. P Stone2,
  10. G MacCallum2,
  11. F E Speizer2,
  12. D R Gold2
  1. 1Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, USA
  2. 2Channing Laboratory, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Department of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
  3. 3Division of Cardiology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Department of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
    Professor J Schwartz
    Department of Environmental Health, Environmental Epidemiology Program, Harvard School of Public Health, 401 Park Drive,P O Box 15677, Landmark Center, Suite 415, Boston, MA 02215, USA;
  • Received 12 March 2004
  • Accepted 8 November 2004


Background: Particulate air pollution has been associated with increased cardiovascular deaths and hospital admissions. To help understand the mechanisms, the types of particles most involved, and the types of persons most susceptible, the association between exposure to summertime air pollution and heart rate variability (HRV) was examined in a panel study of 28 elderly subjects.

Methods: Subjects were seen once a week for up to 12 weeks and HRV (SDNN, r-MSSD, PNN50, low frequency/high frequency ratio (LFHFR)) was measured for approximately 30 minutes at each session using a defined protocol. Temperature, day of the week, and hour of the day were controlled, and dummy variables for each subject were controlled for subject specific risk factors.

Results: PM2.5 was associated with r-MSSD (−10.1% change for an interquartile range (IQR) increase in exposure (95% CI −2.8 to −16.9)) and PNN50, but stronger associations were seen with black carbon, an indicator of traffic particles, which was also associated with SDNN (−4.6% per IQR (95% CI −2.0 to −7.2)) and LFHFR. Secondary particles were more weakly associated with r-MSSD, as was ozone. No associations were seen with SO2 or NO2. CO had similar patterns of association to black carbon, which disappeared after controlling for black carbon. Black carbon had a substantially higher effect on SDNN in subjects who had had a previous myocardial infarction (−12.7%, 95% CI −5.7 to −19.25).

Conclusions: Particles, especially from traffic, are associated with disturbances of autonomic control of the heart.


  • Supported in part by EPA grant # R826780-01-0 and NIH 5 P01 ES09825.