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An estimated 4.2 million deaths each year, many of which are cardiovascular disease-related, are associated with exposure to air pollution. The mechanisms that drive this association include systemic inflammation, endothelial dysfunction, oxidative stress, hypertension, and metabolic dysfunction. Findings from a recent study suggest that supplemental omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease-related death associated with exposure to particulate air pollutants.

Particulate matter in air pollution is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets. It is present in fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrograms (PM2.5) or less. The daily standard for PM2.5 in the United States is 35 micrograms per cubic millimeter per day, as long as the average annual exposure is less than 12 micrograms per cubic millimeter daily.

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are derived from marine sources, elicit a wide array of health benefits. The American Heart Association recommends that people who have coronary heart disease consume approximately 1 gram of DHA and EPA daily in foods or supplemental form.

The randomized, double-blind study involved 65 healthy students attending Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Participants received either a 2.5-gram EPA- and DHA-rich fish oil supplement or a placebo daily for a period of four months. The authors of the study measured PM2.5 levels throughout the study. They also collected blood samples from the participants to assess levels of 18 cardiovascular disease-related biomarkers.

The average PM2.5 level during the study period was 38 micrograms per cubic millimeter. Whereas the participants who took the fish oil supplement had biomarker profiles that were cardioprotective, the participants who took the placebo had biomarker profiles associated with inflammation and cardiovascular disease. In particular, taking the fish oil supplement was associated with having higher levels of glutathione peroxidase (an enzyme that protects against oxidative stress) but the supplement was associated with having higher levels of C-reactive protein (a driver of inflammation).

These findings suggest that the intake of fish oil supplements rich in EPA and DHA may provide cardiovascular protection to people living in areas of high air pollution.

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