News Release

Particulate air pollution: Exposure to ultrafine particles influences cardiac function

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Helmholtz Munich (Helmholtz Zentrum München Deutsches Forschungszentrum für

Inhalable particles include all particulate matter with a diameter smaller than 10 micrometers (PM10). In this group a distinction is made between even finer particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) in diameter, which can deeply enter the lung, and ultrafine particles with diameters less than 0.1 micrometers (100 nanometers), which can also enter the blood stream.

The research team at Helmholtz Zentrum München led by Prof. Dr. Annette Peters, head of the research program Epidemiology at the German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD), and Dr. Alexandra Schneider together with colleagues of the University of Rochester (USA), studied how ultrafine particles specifically affect the heart. They provided 64 study participants with measuring devices which recorded particle number concentrations as well as the heart activity (ECG, electrocardiogram) during daily activities. Furthermore, data from an urban background station for particulate matter were considered. The recruited participants had a confirmed diagnosis of impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) or type 2 diabetes.

Change in heart rate variability after only short-term exposure

"Elevated concentrations of ultrafine particles, e.g. in dense road traffic, led to a change in heart rate variability* of the participants after only five minutes," said Peters. "Moreover, we were able to confirm effects that are already known, for example that fine particles over the course of an hour and noise are associated with impaired cardiac function."

The adverse health effects of inhalable and/or fine particles have already been established in other studies. In the present study they occur below the EU threshold limit value, which has existed for the last ten years. The role of ultrafine particles, however, is unclear: Scientists expect additional adverse health effects - but to date no threshold limit values have been established.

Health risks - demand for threshold limit values

"The results are alarming because ultrafine particles occur generally in the environment and pose health risks for all of us - but especially for people who already have an elevated risk for cardiovascular disease, such as the individuals with diabetes in this study," said Peters. "We hope that with our data, we can substantiate the demands for threshold limit values and environmental standards in the future."


* Heart rate variability describes the adaptability of the individual's cardiovascular system to the demands of the current situation and is controlled by the autonomic nervous system.

Read more here about the scientific findings on the health effects of fine dust and noise:

Particulate Air Pollution Leads to Increased Heart Attack Risk, Results of the ESCAPE Study, press release of Helmholtz Zentrum München from January 22, 2014:

Exposure to Everyday Noise Influences Heart Rate Variability, press release of Helmholtz Zentrum München from May 2, 2013:

Further Information


Peters, A. et al. (2015), Elevated particle number concentrations induce immediate changes in heart rate variability: a panel study in individuals with impaired glucose metabolism or diabetes, Particle & Fibre Toxicology, doi: 10.1186/s12989-015-0083-7

Link to publication:

To the blog network BioMed Central: "Air pollution could exacerbate cardiovascular disease in diabetes patients"

As German Research Center for Environmental Health, Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,300 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members. The Helmholtz Zentrum München is a partner in the German Center for Diabetes Research.

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