Air pollution is clearly linked to peaks in admissions to hospitals and visits to primary care for certain respiratory conditions, according to a new study by UK researchers.
They studied nearly 15 years of data on air pollution levels in Dundee, Perth and the surrounding area. They matched it to the records of 450 patients with bronchiectasis, a long-term condition that can cause a persistent cough and breathlessness as well as frequent chest infections.
“The patients we looked at, who all suffer from lung conditions, are to my mind the canary in the coalmine on this issue”
The researchers said the links between the periods when air pollution was at its worst and when these patients were having to seek healthcare assistance was “absolutely clear”.
On days when air pollution spiked, there was a large increase in admissions to Ninewells Hospital and Perth Royal Infirmary with breathing problems and visits to GPs with exacerbations.
They also found that the impact of air pollution was worst in the summer, where hot and less windy days raise the levels of air pollution, and when people are outside more and exposed to pollution.
Study author Professor James Chalmers, from Dundee University, said: “Our data suggests that a failure to tackle air pollution is having a major impact on the health of people with lung conditions and potentially the wider Tayside population.
“The patients we looked at, who all suffer from lung conditions, are to my mind the canary in the coalmine on this issue – they are the first and most seriously affected by air pollution but it can affect us all,” he said.
He added: “This is the first study in Scotland where we been able to look in detail at the relationship between medical data and air pollution data, but evidence from other countries has also suggested similar links. There is every reason to believe these results would be replicated elsewhere.”
Professor Chalmers said the problem was particularly acute in those areas where heavy traffic contributed to poor air quality.
Air quality in Scotland is constantly monitored at dozens of sites across the country, with measures of air quality including the amount of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter present.
“Our cities which have the familiar air pollution problems of many built up areas and for people with lung problems, living near a busy road is having a major impact on their health and potentially that of the wider population,” said Professor Chalmers.
“What is worrying is that after big improvements in air quality in the 1990s and 2000s, progress has slowed in the past 10 years and many parts of Scotland are still regularly exceeding EU and Scottish limits for safe levels of air pollution,” he said.
He highlighted that, at a time when the NHS was under increasing strain, effective ways of preventing illness needed to be looked at.
“Our data shows that a fairly modest reduction in air pollution (of 10 µg/m³ of PM10) would have prevented nearly 1,000 hospital admissions and GP visits during the study period,” he noted.
“Tough measures are needed to reduce the level of vehicle emissions in towns and cities across the UK”
The study, funded by the British Lung Foundation, was a collaboration between the researchers at the University of Dundee and environmental health experts from Belgium.
Ian Jarrold, head of research at the British Lung Foundation, said: “It is well-known that people with lung conditions are the first to become breathless when exposed to air pollution.
“But, thanks to this study, we now know that there is a clear link between high levels of air pollution and increased numbers of patients with breathing problems at hospitals and GP surgeries,” he said.
“Improving air quality is not only good for patients with lung disease, it makes economic sense for frontline health services across Scotland and the UK,” said Mr Jarrold.
He added: “Tough measures are needed to reduce the level of vehicle emissions in towns and cities across the UK, so that everyone can breathe easier.”
The Scottish study findings have been published in the European Respiratory Journal.