Air pollution is making the NHS winter crisis worse, 175 doctors warn

Air pollution is leading to a spike in cases of asthma and bronchitis and heaping pressure on the struggling NHS, 175 leading doctors warn

  • Thousands of patients are arriving on hospital wards with respiratory conditions
  • It comes as the NHS is already struggling to cope with extreme winter pressures
  • The open letter urges the PM to commit more funds to combatting air pollution 

Air pollution is leading to a spike in cases of asthma and bronchitis and heaping pressure on the struggling NHS, leading doctors have warned.

A group of 175 doctors and health professionals have warned the Prime Minister there is a ‘public health crisis’ on hospital wards and GP surgeries as thousands of people arrive with respiratory conditions.

In a letter to Boris Johnson, they said the NHS is already struggling to cope with winter pressures and these pressures are being ‘exacerbated by preventable causes’.

A group of 175 doctors and health professionals have warned the Prime Minister there is a ‘public health crisis’ on hospital wards and GP surgeries as thousands of people arrive with respiratory conditions caused by pollution (stock)

‘Thousands of children and adults are in hospital or waiting rooms with conditions such as respiratory diseases, bronchitis and pneumonia who would not be there if air pollution was reduced,’ they wrote.

‘Air pollution isn’t just associated with conditions such as lung cancer or asthma, it can also trigger heart attacks, strokes and has been linked with diabetes and depression.

‘The hospitals and surgeries we work in are overwhelmed, particularly in A&E, and the severe pressures in the winter months are being exacerbated by preventable causes.

‘This is a public health crisis.’ 

The open letter urges the Prime Minister to commit more funds to combatting pollution and set a legally-binding target to meet World Health Organisation guidelines for air pollution by 2030.

Professor Stephen Holgate, clinical professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, who signed the letter, said: ‘Air pollution is the public health problem of our time.

‘The Government must give this the highest priority for the sake of the country’s health.’ 

Dr Rob Hughes, senior fellow at the Clean Air Fund, who also signed the letter, said: ‘As well as properly funding the NHS, it’s critical that the new Government addresses the root causes of this crisis, including clearing the toxic air which is sending so many people to already busy emergency departments and GP surgeries.

‘A new Clean Air Act which adopts the World Health Organisation’s recommended limits for pollution would be a good start.’ 

Professor James Chalmers, chair in respiratory research at the University of Dundee, who also signed the letter, said: ‘The UK has some of the highest rates of pneumonia in Europe, with air pollution being one of the major preventable factors for developing the condition.

‘Children, the elderly and people with existing lung conditions are those most at risk during the winter months.’ 

Another signatory, Dr Anant Patel, consultant respiratory physician at the Royal Free Hospital in London, said: ‘There is an epidemic of people who have never smoked developing lung cancer which in large part is due to roadside air pollution.

‘This is an enormous opportunity for jobs and growth in the UK in this next parliament to become a world leader in green technologies.

‘We either start to lead this process or get left behind again.’ 

Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, added: ‘Year after year, we witness A&E wards buckle under the pressure of the influx of patients admitted with respiratory conditions.

‘The evidence is clear – dirty air is a major contributing factor to lung conditions and the NHS’s winter workload.’ 

Data from King’s College London suggests the risk of emergency hospital admissions for pneumonia in children is on average 2 per cent higher on high pollution days than on lower pollution days.

It also suggests that cutting air pollution by a fifth may result in 4,481 fewer children with acute bronchitis each year in just seven cities. 


CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE A LOW IQ: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found in May 2019 that children born to mothers who live in polluted areas have an IQ that is up to seven points lower than those living in places with cleaner air.

CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE POORER MEMORY: Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found boys exposed to greater levels of PM2.5 in the womb  performed worse on memory tests by the time they are 10.

DELAY THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN: Youngsters who live less than one-third of a mile away from busy roads are twice as likely to score lower on tests of communication skills in infancy, found researchers at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health in April. They were also more likely to have poorer hand-eye coordination.

MAKE CHILDREN MORE ANXIOUS: University of Cincinnati scientists claimed pollution may alter the structure of children’s brains to make them more anxious. Their study of 14 youngsters found rates of anxiety was higher among those exposed to greater levels of pollution. 

CUT YOUR CHILD’S LIFE SHORT: Children born today will lose nearly two years of their lives because of air pollution, according to a report by the US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia in April 2019. UNICEF called for action on the back of the study.

RAISE A CHILD’S RISK OF AUTISM: Researchers at Monash University in Australia discovered youngsters living in highly polluted parts of Shanghai have a 86 per cent greater chance of developing ASD. Lead author Dr Yuming Guo said: ‘The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment.’

CAUSE ASTHMA IN CHILDREN: Four million children around the world develop asthma each year because of road traffic pollution, a major study by academics at George Washington University estimated. Experts are divided as to what causes asthma – but exposure to pollution in childhood increases the risk by damaging the lungs.

MAKE CHILDREN FAT: University of Southern California experts found last November that 10 year olds who lived in polluted areas when they were babies are, on average, 2.2lbs (1kg), heavier than those who grew up around cleaner air. Nitrogen dioxide pollution could disrupt how well children burn fat, the scientists said. 

LEAVE WOMEN INFERTILE EARLIER: Scientists at the University of Modena, Italy, claimed in May 2019 that they believe pollution speeds up ageing in women, just like smoking, meaning they run out of eggs faster. This was based on them finding almost two-thirds of women who have a low ‘reserve’ of eggs regularly inhaled toxic air.

RAISE THE RISK OF A MISCARRIAGE: University of Utah scientists found in January that pregnant women are 16 per cent more likely to suffer the heartbreak of a miscarriage if they live in areas of high pollution.  

RAISE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER: Scientists at the University of Stirling found six women working at the same bridge next to a busy road in the US got breast cancer within three years of each other. There was a one in 10,000 chance the cases were a coincidence, the study said. It suggested chemicals in the traffic fumes caused the cancer by shutting down the BRCA genes, which try to stop tumours growing. 

DAMAGE A MAN’S SPERM: Brazilian scientists at the University of Sao Paulo found in March that mice exposed to toxic air had lower counts and worse quality sperm compared to those who had inhaled clean air since birth. 

MAKE MEN LESS LIKELY TO GET SEXUALLY AROUSED: Scientists at Guangzhou Medical University in China found rats exposed to air pollution struggled to get sexually aroused. Scientists believe it may also affect men, as inhaling poisonous particles may trigger inflammation in blood vessels and starve the genitals of oxygen – affecting men’s ability to become sexually aroused.

MAKE MEN MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION:  Men who live on main roads are more likely to have difficulty getting an erection due to exposure to pollution, a Guangzhou University in China study suggested in February. Toxic fumes reduced blood flow to the genitals, tests on rats showed, putting them at risk of developing erectile dysfunction. 

RAISE THE RISK OF PSYCHOSIS: In March, King’s College London scientists linked toxic air to intense paranoia and hearing voices in young people for the first time. They said uncovering exactly how pollution may lead to psychosis should be an ‘urgent health priority’.

MAKE YOU DEPRESSED: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found in January that that the more polluted the air, the sadder we are. Their study was based on analysing social media users in China alongside the average daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data where they lived.

CAUSE DEMENTIA: Air pollution could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia in the UK, researchers from King’s College London and St George’s, University of London, calculated last September. Tiny pollutants breathed deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream, where they may travel into the brain and cause inflammation – a problem which may trigger dementia.

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