Pollution is personal: Faiza’s battle to clear the air

Pollution is personal: Faiza’s battle to clear the air

As a young girl, Faiza Yasin was given the nickname “Fizz”. Friends and family told her she had so much energy she would “fizz up like fizzy pop”.

But because Faiza was born with several heart conditions and got tired easily, she had trouble using up this excess energy.

When her two brothers were running around and riding bikes, Faiza would watch from the window.

At times, her legs — yearning to jump around — struggled to make it up the stairs. She’d get to the top, hands on knees, gasping for breath.

Faiza, aged 4, after another heart operation

Outside the house wasn’t any better, with Faiza feeling first-hand the link between heart health and air pollution; a link since established by pioneering British Heart Foundation research.

“I would cough and have to hold my breath or breathe into my sleeve as I passed the fumes of cars and work sites,” she says.

Faiza’s heart didn’t form properly in the womb and she was born with a complicated set of conditions known as Tetralogy of Fallot. This means she is more affected by dirty air.

Now 24, and with five heart operations behind her, Faiza is busy getting on with her life.

When she’s not trekking around the city teaching yoga, she works as a patient representative at a London hospital.

And while she’s worked hard to build up physical and emotional strength, she still struggles at times to find her breath — especially in areas of high pollution.

For Faiza, because of her serious heart condition, air pollution is not an academic concern. It’s personal.

“Where I live, in Maidenhead, it’s more of a town with lots of green, open spaces, and as soon as you come into the city you instantly feel it’s polluted,” she says.

Peak hour pollution in central London

“I get tightness in the chest and it’s like there’s air going in but you don’t feel like you’re catching any breath. I feel my heart working harder to do its job.

“But I’ve just never really felt sorry for myself. I just got on with it because I know no different.”

Our research is unlocking a cleaner, healthier future

It’s not just Faiza who is hampered by air pollution. It’s a problem for anyone living with heart and circulatory disease.

In 2012, according to the World Health Organisation, 11,000 deaths from coronary heart disease or stroke in the UK were related to air pollution.

Crucially, our research shows that exposure to air pollution increases your risk of suffering a potentially deadly heart attack or stroke.

“The disturbance to blood vessel function means there is an increased risk of clots developing in coronary arteries,” says Dr Nick Mills, BHF Senior Clinical Research Fellow at our Centre of Research Excellence in Edinburgh.

In response to this national problem, we are currently funding over £1.7 million of research into air pollution.

Leading the way, BHF-funded researchers were the first to establish how increased exposure to vehicle exhaust affects the cardiovascular system.

And while air pollution is described as an invisible killer, this isn’t quite so — particularly if you can get your hands on a very powerful microscope. The toxic particles emitted mostly from the fumes of diesel engines are, well, less than tiny.

Tiny killers lurking in the exhaust

Our research shows that some of the harmful fragments can be up to a 1000 times smaller than the width of a strand of hair. Small enough, once breathed in, to enter your bloodstream. These nanoparticles, once in the blood, can accumulate in diseased blood vessels, making them more likely to rupture and cause a heart attack or stroke.

“We can’t afford to be complacent,” says BHF Professor David Newby, whose team of scientists have been working with specialists in the Netherlands, Sweden and Beijing to see if reducing exposure to air pollution could benefit the heart and circulation.

‘We must make a change’

Back in the UK, air pollution is unsurprisingly the largest environmental risk factor linked to deaths in England. Put simply, more must be done.

Faiza, for one, knows this is urgent.

“The government must do all it can to improve air quality, it’ll help me breathe easier and make life better,” she says.

This sentiment was echoed in a recent poll commissioned by the BHF, where 52 per cent of respondents said government should be doing “a lot more” to improve air quality across the UK.

Moreover, dangerous levels of air pollution are putting the heart health of the general public — including healthy individuals — at greater risk of a heart attack or stroke.

With this mind, we urge the government to adopt World Health Organisation air quality guidelines into UK law. This vital measure will protect against toxic levels of air pollution, thereby ensuring the nation has better heart health.

It’s a no brainer, believes Faiza.

“We must make a change,” she says, before fizzing off to teach yoga in between shifts at the hospital.

Faiza is a member of the British Heart Foundation’s One Beat programme, a peer support group for young people with heart conditions. Email for more information or if you’d like to join.

The British Heart Foundation held a Clean Air Day photo-call for MPs on June 19 in Westminster as part of our policy advocacy.

Pollution is personal: Faiza’s battle to clear the air was originally published in British Heart Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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