Friday 22 March 2013

Britain is no country for old men with respiratory diseases living in cities with diesel polluted air

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is the name for a collection of lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airway disease. Typical symptoms include increasing breathlessness when active, persistent cough with phlegm and frequent chest infections.
It was partly instrumental in the premature death of my old Dad at the age of 68, thirty five years ago. In his case it was brought on by the tobacco smoke he inhaled from a young age, the emery dust at his workplace, sharpening saws in a timber mill and no doubt, the heavily polluted London air he breathed in for many before the Clean Air Act of 1956, passed as a response to the Great Smog in 1952.

I was 5 years old, living in Deptford, South London when the smog descended over the City in December. Caused by a toxic combination of soot particles and sulphur dioxide from coal burnt on domestic fires and water doplets, it was so thick  that it stopped trains, cars, and public events.
What I didn't know, as a small boy, was that, as a result of the smog, 4,000 more people than usual at that time of year at that time of year, died in the immediate aftermath and a further 8,000 in following weeks and months, most of whom had pre-existing respiratory problems and also a large number of old men and women. It remains the world's most lethal pollution disaster.

Fast forward 60 years to 2012, when : researchers from Newcastle University investigated the current 'burden of respiratory conditions' in old men and women as part of the 'Newcastle 85+ Study' into the health and vitality of the old timers over this age and revealed that :

* overall, 20% of the old men and 21% of the women had either asthma or COPD - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

* 59% of the old men and 50% of women showed airflow obstruction when they undertook a spirometry test to measure lung function.

Professor Andrew Fisher, who led the respiratory theme of the study, said: 

“Our results confirm a significant prevalence of obstructive spirometry in the 85+ population, further evaluation of this unique dataset will allow us to examine how much of this is attributable to healthy ageing of the lungs and how much to the airways disease in this population of very old people.”

Now, 60 years on, air pollution caused by diesel fumes is now the invisible smog, killing old men and women by acerbating respiratory problems.
·         Most of last week, London's air was heavily pollutedwith many pollution monitors recording 'high' nitrogen dioxide levels as an acute photochemical smog of fumes and microscopic particles of acids, chemicals, metals and dust drifted in from the Continent, mixed with London diesel exhaust which then became trapped in the still, dry air.
Since Christmas, there have been four major air pollution episodes, stretching from London to Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, Dundee and Glasgow. On 3 March, the Department of the Environment advised people to 'reduce or avoid strenuous activity'. 
The latest figures suggest 29,000 people die prematurely from air pollution every year in Britain, twice as many as from road traffic, obesity and alcohol combined, with air pollution now second only to smoking as a cause of death.
Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee despairs:
"It's a scandal that the same number of people are dying of air pollution in London now as back in the 1950s. The Government needs to step in."
Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner, Jenny Bates said :
"It's a disgrace the UK is failing so badly on air pollution – tens of thousands of people die every year. Action by the government to clean up our dirty air is too little too late – and road-building plans will simply make the situation worse," 
One reason that the Government  has been able to dodge the law is that modern air pollution is mostly invisible, colourless, odourless, and tasteless, or comes in particles so small they can pass through masks. Sixty years ago you could practically cut the coal smoke belching from chimneys. It turned buildings and clothes black, damaged crops and gave people lasting diseases. However, when coal declined, the problem was assumed to have gone.

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