Air pollution linked to spikes in hospital and GP visits

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By Matthew Taylor environment correspondent

Study shows poor air quality leads to health problems and ‘should serve as a warning’

Air pollution leads to spikes in health problems and drives up hospital admissions and visits to the GP, according to a new study.

The report proves an “absolutely clear” link between poor air quality and health problems and researchers said it should serve as a warning to politicians about the serious impacts of toxic air on public health.

“The patients we looked at, who all suffer from lung conditions, are to my mind the canary in the coalmine on this issue,” said one of the report’s authors, Prof James Chalmers, from the respiratory research in the school of medicine at Dundee. “They are the first and most seriously affected by air pollution but it can affect us all.”

The findings come amid growing concern about the illegal levels of air pollution in the UK and the impact on people’s health – particularly children.

Last week a medical expert said the hospital admissions of a girl who died in an asthma attack at the age of nine showed a “striking association” with spikes in illegal levels of air pollution around her home in London.

The family of Ella Kissi-Debrah are now calling for a new inquest into her death following fresh evidence that air pollution was a contributory factor.

Today’s report is one of the most comprehensive carried out in the UK and studied nearly 15 years of data for air pollution levels in Dundee, Perth and the surrounding area.

Those figures were matched to medical records of 450 patients who suffer from bronchiectasis, a long-term chronic condition similar to COPD which can cause a persistent cough and breathlessness as well as frequent chest infections.

Chalmers said the results were stark.

“When we looked at these two sets of data side-by-side the links between the periods when air pollution is at its worst and when these patients are having to seek assistance is absolutely clear.

“We found that 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 breathing problems, known as exacerbations.”

Ian Jarrold, head of research at the British Lung Foundation, said although it was “well-known” that people with lung conditions are the first to become breathless when exposed to air pollution, today’s report proved a “a clear link between high levels of air pollution and increased numbers of patients with breathing problems at hospitals and GP surgeries”.

“The additional costs faced by the NHS in treating patients with lung conditions due to high exposure to air pollution can no longer be ignored,” he added.

“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. 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 UK government has lost three times in the high court for failing to deal with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution and is now being taken to Europe’s highest court. Last month MPs from four select committees said serious concerns remained over the government’s commitment to reducing the impact of air pollution on public health.

Today’s report found the impact of air pollution was worst near heavy traffic and in the summer, when hot, calm days raised the levels of toxic air people were breathing.

Chalmers said a relatively small improvement in air quality would have a big impact on people’s health.

“At a time when the NHS is under increasing strain, we should be looking at effective ways of preventing illness. 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 added that although the study was based in Tayside its results were relevant to all areas of the UK.

“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 … [but] there is every reason to believe these results would be replicated elsewhere.”

The study was a collaboration between the research team at the University of Dundee and environmental health experts from Belgium. The study was funded by the British Lung Foundation and is published in the European Respiratory Journal.

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