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Study shows oil pollution causes heart problems

CHICAGO -- The reason people have more heart attacks when air pollution levels rise may have been revealed by a study on the impact of the BP oil spill on tuna, scientists said Thursday.

Heart problems in humans and fish have long been linked to air pollution and oil spills respectively. But researchers had not yet sorted out exactly how the toxic compounds found in oil interfere with heart cells.

Interest in the problem increased when the devastating 2010 explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig unleashed four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico during spawning season.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Stanford University set out to understand what happened to the hearts of tuna which had been spawned near the spill.

They collected oil samples and young fish from the site and studied the impact of both fresh and 'weathered' oil on the fish heart muscles.

The researchers found that chemicals in the oil blocked the potassium and calcium channels that regulate heart rate and rhythm.

The basic mechanisms occurring there are vital processes in cardiac cells in all vertebrates — including humans.

“There's lots of evidence that what's in particulate matter — the exhaust coming out of our cars — is similar to what we're measuring here in crude oil,” said study author Barbara Block, a biologist at Stanford University.

“We should be looking at the impact of air pollution on cardiac excitation coupling and I suspect we'll find the exact same response as we find here.”

The discovery could have impacts beyond the regulation of oil pollution, said coauthor at Nat Scholz, who heads the ecotoxicology program at a NOAA fisheries center in Seattle.

“These results on the NOAA side are going to have the potential to go beyond crude oil because there's so many other sources of PAH (toxic hydrocarbons) in coastal watersheds,” he told reporters at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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