Scottish study links air pollution spikes to hospital admissions

Air pollution has been ‘clearly linked’ to spikes in breathing problem-related admissions to hospitals and visits to GPs, researchers in Scotland have claimed.

Researchers at the University of Dundee studied nearly 15 years of data for air pollution levels in Dundee, Perth and the surrounding area and matched it to medical records of 450 patients who suffer from bronchiectasis, a long-term chronic condition similar to COPD.

Researchers in Dundee have linked spikes in air pollution to an increase in visits to hospital and GPs’ surgeries

Commenting on the findings, Professor James Chalmers, GSK/British Lung Foundation Professor of Respiratory Research in the School of Medicine at Dundee, said the study demonstrated a clear correlation between air pollution and visits to the health services.

He said: “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 GP’s with breathing problems, known as exacerbations.”

Seasonal

Professor Chalmers claimed that the data showed that the impact of air pollution was worst in the summer months, where hotter and less windy days raised the levels of air pollution.

It is also when people are outside more and are being exposed to pollution, the researchers suggested, and a time when doctor visits were more frequent.

Professor Chalmers added: “Our datasuggests 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.”

Ian Jarrold, Head of Research at the British Lung Foundation, said that the research showed that the additional costs faced by the NHS due to exposure to air pollution ‘can no longer be ignored’.

“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. 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.

“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 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.