Cleaner air during UK lockdown relieves asthma for millions

Two million people in the UK with respiratory conditions such as asthma have experienced reduced symptoms during the coronavirus lockdown, according to the British Lung Foundation.

A survey by the charity of 14,000 people with lung conditions found one in six had noticed improvements in their health. Among children, the figure was higher, with one in five parents saying their child’s condition had been alleviated. Asthma sufferers in particular reported benefits, with one in four noting relief.

There is a well-established link between air pollution and lung disease. Of the 12 million people in the UK who live with conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, about 8 million have been diagnosed with asthma, of which 5.4 million are receiving treatment.

The number of visits to hospital emergency departments for asthma in England have also fallen by half during lockdown, according to Public Health England data. But it is unclear how much of the decrease is due to a reduction in symptoms or people’s reluctance to visit hospital during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Zak Bond, of the British Lung Foundation, said: “Now, more than ever before, we have all become aware of how important it is to look after our lungs, and the government has a duty to ensure that as the country recovers from Covid-19, we can continue to keep air pollution levels down and keep pushing them lower.”

There is growing evidence from around the world linking increased Covid-19 infections and deaths to air pollution exposure. On Friday, a cross-party group of MPs said air pollution must be kept at low levels to help avoid a second peak of infections.

Bond called for the rapid introduction of clean air zones in cities, where charges deter the use of the most polluting vehicles. But these have been delayed in cities such as Manchester, with officials citing the need to focus on the coronavirus response.

Bond said more support was needed for public transport, cycling and walking, and tougher air quality laws: “We want to see the government commit to reaching the World Health Organization’s guidelines for fine particulate matter by 2030 at the latest.”

Each year, air pollution leads to tens of thousands of early deaths in the UK. More than a third of local authorities in England have levels of fine particle pollution above the WHO’s limit. Nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant produced largely by diesel vehicles, is at illegal levels in 80% of urban areas.

Stephen Holgate, Medical Research Council clinical professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, said: “As one of the biggest health problems of our time, air pollution has the potential to harm everyone. It is so important we take this opportunity to recognise the lived experiences of people with lung conditions and apply what we have learned from the impact of lockdown to build a future where we prioritise clean air.”

The lockdown led to traffic falling to 1955 levels while both fine particle and NO2 pollution fell by up to half in cities. The British Lung Foundation survey found that more than 50% of people with lung conditions said they had noticed a decrease in air pollution since the start of lockdown.

One asthma sufferer, Paul, 14 from Liverpool, has often found it difficult to breathe, but has had to use his reliever inhaler a lot less during lockdown. “You can really feel the difference now,” he said. “I walk out, and I’m hit with clean air which is like a utopia compared to before.”

Dr Alison Cook, the chair of the Taskforce for Lung Health, a coalition of 30 organisations, said: “Children deserve to breathe cleaner air and to grow up in a country where their health is not put at risk by going outside.”

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