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Millions of people in the UK with lung conditions could be at risk from toxic air - new estimates

Tuesday 14th June 2022

Millions1 of people in the UK with lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) could find their symptoms triggered by toxic air, putting them at risk of life-threatening asthma attacks and flare-ups, according to new estimates from health charity, Asthma + Lung UK.

Alerting the Nation2, a new report published today by Asthma + Lung UK, reveals more than half 53% of people with asthma and 47% of people with COPD, in surveys of more than 16,000 people, say toxic air is a trigger for their symptoms which can include a tight chest, coughing and breathlessness. When applied to the general population of people with asthma and COPD this could equate to as many as 3.4 million people who are affected.

The report highlights that air pollution in not only impacting people’s health, leaving them fighting for breath, but it also is affecting other aspects of their daily lives including their ability to leave their homes, exercise and see friends and family. A further survey of 1000 people with lung conditions, who are among the most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, found:

  • A third (33%) do not leave their homes when air pollution is high.
  • Almost half (47%) said air pollution prevented them from exercising outdoors, even though exercise is a vital way for people with lung conditions to manage their lung health.3
  • One in six (17%) said air pollution meant they didn’t see their family and friends as much as they liked.
  • Almost a quarter (24%) said air pollution made them feel low or depressed.
  • Almost 10% reported having to move house to escape the pollution, which is simply not an option for most people.

Poor air quality contributes to 36,000 premature deaths each year in the UK4. It creates new lung conditions, worsens existing ones5 leading to an increase in hospitalisations6, and is linked to lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and stunted lung growth in children. In most towns and cities, road traffic is a leading source of air pollution7 which is the type of air pollution that most concerned 82% of people surveyed.

 

The charity, which provides health advice and information to anyone affected by a lung condition via its website and helpline8, wants to see the introduction of tougher legal air quality targets for England, that will reduce the levels of the most harmful types of pollution to human health by 2030, in line with interim guidelines from the World Health Organization9 (WHO).

 

It is also urging the government to help people, particularly those who are most at risk from air pollution, to reduce their exposure to harmful levels by better promotion of the national air pollution alerts system10; improvements to the health advice issued with the alerts and lowering the thresholds of when alerts are made. Almost two thirds (62%) of people with lung conditions surveyed were unaware air pollution alerts exist, and more than three quarters (77%) said they didn’t feel central government was doing enough to protect them.

Leon, 73, from Aughton, West Lancashire, says he is “trapped in his home by air pollution”. “My lungs have been sensitive to diesel and petrol fumes for as long as I can remember, but since being diagnosed with COPD in 2017, I’m trapped in my own home. On school days when there is lots of traffic near my house, I daren’t open the window or go outside, because if I do and the wind is blowing the wrong way, I can’t breathe.  I’m left coughing and choking; it’s frightening.”

“It really makes me feel so low and isolated that I can’t go out, even in the garden. If I did go out when the air is thick with traffic fumes, I don’t know if I would make it back home again. What upsets me the most is that even my young grandson can see how much I’m struggling to breathe. People should know exactly what bad air can do to your body – it will kill you. There should be more information out there about the danger of car fumes and other sources of air pollution.”

Sarah Woolnough, Chief Executive of Asthma + Lung UK, said:

“Air pollution is silently damaging the lives and lungs of millions of people right across the UK – leaving people gasping for breath, putting them in hospital and ultimately cutting lives short. It’s also affecting the daily lives of people with lung conditions who in some cases are having to choose between protecting their health and leaving their homes. Despite this, the government continues to kick robust national targets for the most harmful types of pollutants into the long grass. This is completely unacceptable. We are urging the government to commit to bolder clean air targets in the upcoming Environment Act and to improve air pollution alerts including public awareness. Anyone concerned about air pollution can make their voice heard by completing the public consultation form on our website.”

Kate Langford, Programme Director of the Health effects of air pollution programme at Impact on Urban Health, said:

“Everyone should be able to work, learn and play without worrying about the air they breathe. Air pollution is a public health crisis and a social justice issue. It’s the greatest environmental threat to health and the effects are disproportionately offset onto people who do the least to contribute: Children, older people and people with health conditions. But air pollution can be fixed. National and local government need to urgently act by investing in policies that improve air quality, and by working with businesses to reduce emissions. In the meantime, this report points to the need for consistent information on air pollution levels given to those whose health is most vulnerable, in the places they spend their time and from sources they trust.”

Public consultation on national air quality targets closes on 27 June – get involved:

Poor lung health is the third biggest killer11 in the UK and air pollution has a significant role to play. Ambitious national air pollution targets are needed in law to protect the future lung health of the nation, but the new targets proposed by the UK government will not be met until 2040.

Asthma + Lung UK is urging everyone to respond to the government’s consultation12 on the new air pollution targets by Monday 27 June, calling for them to be met a decade earlier, by 2030 at the latest13. For further information and to participate in the public consultation, visit: https://envirotarget.uk/asthma-lung-uk

 

-Ends-

Notes to Editor:

 

Media contact:

For further information, case studies, images or interview requests, contact press@asthmaandlung.org.uk or 07834 196 804.

 

 

Side bar: Dr Andrew Whittamore, Clinical Lead at Asthma + Lung UK, shares five tips everyone can follow to protect themselves from air pollution:14

 

  1. Subscribe to the government’s air pollution alert or check the weather forecast to see when pollution levels will be high.
  2. Avoid main roads, busy streets and junctions where possible and particularly on high pollution days and walk on the inside of the pavement as this can significantly reduce your exposure.
  3. Beat the rush hour by arriving at work or school a little earlier before traffic and levels of pollution have built up.
  4. If you have asthma, make sure you use your preventer inhaler regularly and carry your reliever inhaler with you if you have one.
  5. Make your voice heard and raise awareness of air pollution! Join Asthma + Lung UK to share your air pollution story or to become a clean air campaigner. Visit www.asthmaandlung.org.uk to get involved and for further air pollution advice and information.

 

Side bar: Keeping active with a lung condition:

Keeping active with a lung condition is vital to helping a person manage their condition, improve their breathing, and ensure their mental wellbeing. It also helps people to feel more in control of their condition, be more independent and live well for longer.   Improving a person’s fitness also makes them stronger and helps them to stay out of hospital. For further information about the mental and physical benefits of exercise for people with lung conditions, including further information about Pulmonary Rehabilitation and eligibility, and exercise guidance and support, visit: Why is being active important for me? | Asthma + Lung UK

About Asthma + Lung UK:

Asthma + Lung UK is the leading UK charity supporting everyone with a lung condition and fighting for everyone’s right to breathe. It is calling for the government to invest more research into lung conditions. For information and support visit asthmaandlung.org.uk or call the helpline on 0300 222 5800

Sources:

  1. In Asthma + Lung UK’s annual asthma survey (2022), more than half (53.3%) of the 8,300 respondents, all of whom had asthma, said that air pollution is a trigger for their symptoms. When the 53.3% of people triggered by air pollution is applied to the 5.4 million people in the UK who have asthma, the estimated number of people with asthma who are triggered by air pollution is 2,878,200. Asthma + Lung UK’s Annual COPD Survey (2022), which was an online survey 8232 people in the UK with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), found almost half (47.3%) said air pollution triggered their COPD. To estimate the number of people with COPD who say that air pollution triggers their condition, we applied this to the number of people in the UK with a COPD diagnosis (1.2 million) to get 567,600. In total this equates to around 3.4 million people in the UK with a lung condition saying they are affected by air pollution.
  2. Day, R., Borrowman, P. (2022) Alerting the Nation. London: Asthma + Lung UK (https://www.blf.org.uk/sites/default/files/Alerting%20the%20Nation%20Report_v4.pdf). Alerting the Nation includes the results of a survey of 1,000 respondents across the UK who said they had a lung condition, into how air pollution affects their daily lives: 33.2%, almost one third, of people with lung conditions said one of the ways air pollution affects their daily lives is they don’t leave their house when air pollution is high.
  3. Asthma + Lung UK:  Keeping Active With A Lung Condition: https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/keep-active/why-is-it-important
  4. Public Health England I. (2019) Improving outdoor air quality and health: review of interventions https://www.gov.uk/government/news/public-health-england-publishes-air-pollution-evidence-review
  5. Bond, Z., Edwards, H. (2021: p11) The Invisible Threat. London: British Lung Foundation. Available at: www.blf.org.uk/take-action/clean-air/invisible-threat-report
  6. Imperial College London: Air Pollution in London contributes to 1,700 hospital admissions for asthma. Article here
  7. Office of National Statistics. (2019) Road Transport and Air Emissions: Contribution of road transport to greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions.

https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/roadtransportandairemissions/2019-09-16

  1. Asthma + Lung UK health advice and information: Visit asthmaandlung.org.uk or call the helpline on 0300 222 5800.
  2. World Health Organization (WHO): Improving Health by Reducing Air Pollution. (2021).

https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/what-are-the-who-air-quality-guidelines – :~:text=The%20WHO%20Air%20quality%20guidelines%20are%20a%20set,the%20latest%20global%20version%20was%20published%20in%202005.

  1. UK Air, https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/
  2. UK Health Research Analysis (2020). Available at: https://hrcsonline.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/UK-Health-Research-Analysis-2018-for-web-v1-28Jan2020.pdf
  3. Asthma + Lung UK: Clean Air Consultation Tool: https://envirotarget.uk/asthma-lung-uk
  4. Clean Air Fund: Pathway to healthy air in the UK. (2021). Available at: https://www.cleanairfund.org/resource/the-pathway-to-healthy-air-in-the-uk/. The report found that if current and proposed government policies are implemented, air pollution could be reduced to WHO-aligned levels across the majority of the UK by 2030 and as a result, children across the country would suffer an average of 388,000 fewer days of asthma symptoms.
  5. Asthma + Lung UK: How can I protect myself for air pollution? https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/air-pollution/tips