As cities around the world witness unprecedented levels of air pollution, the number of people dying from the impacts of air pollution are also rising. Global mortality due to PM2.5 – that is, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns – increased from from 3.5 million in 1990 to 3.8 million in 2000 and 4.2 million in 2015. About half of these deaths are not in the cities of India and China.

Particulate matter is the most frequent trigger for heart attack at the population level. But medical researchers might have found one way to fight off the impacts of PM2.5 pollution involving a common vitamin supplement. According to new research from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York, B vitamins can diminish the impact of fine particle pollution on cardiovascular disease.

The study involved ten healthy non-smokers between the ages of 18 and 60 who were not on any vitamin B supplements prior to the experiment. For four weeks they were placed on a placebo followed by a two-hour exposure to concentrated ambient PM2.5. In the following four weeks, they were given a vitamin B supplement and again exposed to ambient PM2.5. The two-hour exposure to concentrated ambient PM2.5 had substantial physiologic impacts on heart rate, heart rate variability, and white blood counts. But the results also showed that the vitamin B supplements nearly reversed any negative effects on their cardiovascular and immune systems. The effects of air pollution on heart rate were reduced by 150%, on total white blood count by 139%, and lymphocyte count by 106%.

The research team said that the study provided the first real evidence that ambient PM2.5 pollution, which is one of the most common air pollutants and has a negative effect on cardiac function and the immune system, might be mitigated by vitamin B.

The study, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, indicates that preventive pharmacological interventions using vitamin B should be explored to contain the health effects of air pollution.