FRIDAY, April 14, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- There's a lot of evidence to show that breathing in dirty air can harm your heart. But a small new study suggests that daily vitamin B supplements might counteract that effect.
While two hours of exposure to concentrated air pollution had a negative effect on heart rate and levels of illness-fighting white blood cells, "these effects are nearly reversed with four-week B-vitamin supplementation," according to study co-author Dr. Andrea Baccarelli. He's chair of environmental health sciences at Columbia University in New York City.
One lung health expert was cautiously optimistic about the findings.
"It is interesting that pretreating with B vitamins may prevent some of the deleterious effects of exposure to this pollution," said Dr. Alan Mensch, senior vice president of medical affairs at Northwell Heath's Plainview Hospital in Plainview, N.Y.
"It must be kept in mind, however, that since this study only included 10 healthy patients, it might not be applicable to an entire population," he added. Plus, preventing air pollution in the first place "takes precedent over developing methods to prevent its deleterious effects," he said.
The new research involved 10 healthy nonsmokers, aged 18 to 60, who took a placebo for four weeks before being exposed to fine-particulate air pollution for two hours.
The "fine particulates" -- microscopic specks -- were 2.5 micrometers in diameter, the researchers said.
Inhalable particles that are "2.5 micrometers or smaller are potentially the most dangerous form of air pollution due to their ability to penetrate deep in the lungs and adjacent bloodstream," Mensch explained. Once inhaled, "they can travel to various organs throughout the body," he added, causing inflammation and ill effects on cardiovascular health.
"Populations exposed to high particulate-associated air pollution have increased heart attacks, lung cancer, DNA mutations, and premature births and deaths," Mensch said.
Overall, fine-particle pollution contributes to 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide each year, mainly through harm to the cardiovascular system. This type of air pollution is believed to be the most common trigger for heart attack, the study authors noted.
But could a simple daily vitamin supplement help curb this smog-linked damage?
To find out, Baccarelli's group gave the 10 participants vitamin B supplements for four weeks before again exposing them to the fine-particle air pollution for another two hours.
This time, the vitamin B supplements were linked to a near-reversal of the negative effects of the pollution on the volunteers' cardiovascular and immune systems, the researchers said. This included healthy changes in each person's heart rate and their white blood cell levels.
Baccarelli stressed that preventing pollution should always be the first measure in safeguarding people's health, however.
"Pollution regulation remains the backbone of public health protection against its cardiovascular health effects," he said in a university news release. "Studies like ours cannot diminish -- nor be used to underemphasize -- the urgent need to lower air pollution levels to -- at a minimum -- meet the air-quality standards set forth in the United States and other countries."
Another lung expert agreed that the vitamin supplements could help blunt the health effects of dirty air.
The new study is "evidence that vitamin B provides benefits against the development of atherosclerosis in healthy adults who are exposed to air pollution," said Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
While it remains unclear just how the supplement works in this regard, "this finding recommends vitamin B, which is of course safe and has no side effects, as a buffer against coronary artery disease," Horovitz said.
The study was published online recently in the journal Scientific Reports.
The California Environmental Protection Agency has more on the health effects of air pollution.