A drop in air pollution due to COVID-19 restrictions has eased overall symptoms for about one in every six people diagnosed with respiratory disorders, a British Lung Foundation (BLF) survey of more than 14,000 people in the U.K. revealed.
These findings prompted the Taskforce for Lung Health — a coalition of over 30 respiratory advocacy groups, including BLF — to call on British authorities to reduce air pollution permanently across the country by accepting standards recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“As one of the biggest health problems of our time, air pollution has the potential to harm everyone,” Stephen Holgate, a professor at the University of Southampton, said in a press release. “We need to do better. Our legal limit is more lenient than the limit recommended by the international health community and people are being exposed to the harmful effects of air pollution as a result.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to stay-at-home orders being issued worldwide to curb the spread of the virus. Subsequent reductions in road transport and industry have led to a 40% decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels across the U.K. This group of air pollutants is produced by the burning of fuel by roadway vehicles, power plants and other equipment.
BLF surveyed more than 14,000 people diagnosed with conditions that included asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis to determine how changes in air pollution were affecting their symptoms.
Over half of respondents (57.2%) noted a reduction in air pollution during the lockdown period. Overall, roughly one in six (16.2%) reported an improvement in respiratory symptoms, with even greater proportions seen among those with asthma (24.6%) and in children with respiratory illnesses — 19.7%, as reported by their parents.
Extrapolated to the 12 million people with respiratory conditions in the U.K., this finding suggests that nearly 2 million people (1.94 million) in the country noticed an improvement in their symptoms.
Air pollution has been connected to respiratory illness, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and tens of thousands of deaths annually. It can impact a person’s ability to breathe and has been shown to exacerbate respiratory symptoms, with children and the elderly being particularly vulnerable.
Studies have linked higher levels of air pollution to greater risk of dying from COVID-19.
“Air pollution can increase your likelihood of getting a lung condition and cause lasting damage to children’s growing lungs,” said Zak Bond, policy and public affairs officer at the BLF. “For those most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, such as people with existing respiratory conditions, or those recovering from COVID-19, clean air is crucial for living well now, and in the future.”
Survey results also found that 83% of parents of children with respiratory conditions believe that addressing air pollution should be a priority of the U.K. government.
The BLF is advocating for the U.K. to adopt air pollution legal limits that have been recommended by WHO, as well as adopting Clean Air Zones — areas with traffic restrictions to improve air quality.
“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, with the rapid introduction of Clean Air Zones, support for public and active transport, and tougher air quality laws,” Bond said. “We want to see the government commit to reaching the WHO’s guidelines for fine particulate matter by 2030 at the latest.”
Measures addressing air pollution are included in legislation before the country’s parliament, called the Environment Bill. It includes calls for sweeping environmental changes and is supported by the BLF and the Taskforce for Lung Health.
“The government has made commitments to reduce emission levels, but it must go further and bring WHO limits into legislation via the Environment Bill,” said Alison Cook, chair of the Taskforce.
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