Millions of people in UK with lung conditions at risk from air pollution

Millions of people in the UK with lung conditions could find their symptoms triggered by toxic air pollution, putting them at risk of life-threatening asthma attacks and flare-ups, according to new estimates from Asthma + Lung UK.

Alerting the Nation, a new report published today by Asthma + Lung UK, reveals more than half (53%) of people with asthma and 47% of people with COPD say toxic air is a trigger for their symptoms which can include a tight chest, coughing and breathlessness, in a survey of 16,000 people.

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.

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.
  • 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.

man in black robe wearing white face mask

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.’

The charity, which provides health advice and information to anyone affected by a lung condition via its website and helpline, 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 Organization (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 system; 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.

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.’

Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska


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