Both increase in cardiac arrhythmia incidence and decrease in heart rate variability (HRV) have been described following human and experimental animal exposures to air pollutants. However, the potential causal relationship between these two factors remains unclear. Incidence of ventricular arrhythmia and HRV were evaluated during and after a 3 h period of Diesel engine exhaust exposure in ten healthy and ten chronic ischemic heart failure (CHF, 3 months after coronary ligation) Wistar rats using implantable ECG telemetry. Air pollutants were delivered to specifically designed whole body individual exposure chambers at particulate matter concentrations similar to those measured inside cabins of cars inserted in congested urban traffic. Recordings were obtained from unrestrained and unsedated vigil rats. Immediate decrease in RMSSD was observed in both healthy (6.64 +/- 2.62 vs. 4.89 +/- 1.67 ms, P < 0.05) and CHF rats (8.01 +/- 0.89 vs. 6.6 +/- 1.37 ms, P < 0.05) following exposure. An immediate 200-500% increase in ventricular premature beats was observed in CHF rats only. Whereas HRV progressively returned to baseline values within 2.5 h after exposure start, the proarrhythmic effect persisted as late as 5 h after exposure termination in CHF rats. Persistence of ventricular proarrhythmic effects after HRV normalization suggests that HRV reduction is not the mechanism of cardiac arrhythmias in this model. Our methodological approach, closely reflecting the real clinical situations, appeared to be a unique tool to provide further insight into the pathophysiological mechanisms of traffic related airborne pollution health impact.