London: fatal lung conditions ‘more likely’ in deprived boroughs

People living in some of London's most deprived areas have up to twice as much chance of dying from life-threatening lung conditions - from cancer to asthma - as those in the richest areas, new research has shown.

The research, by the British Lung Foundation charity, prompted the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to call for urgent measures to improve air quality and reduce pollution in the capital.

The British Lung Foundation conducted a major study, called The Battle for Breath, into respiratory health and diseases across the UK, finding that these illnesses are responsible for about a fifth of deaths nationwide. Initial findings came out over a week ago, but London figures were published on Monday. It found that residents of deprived boroughs Tower Hamlets, Newham, and Barking and Dagenham were up to twice as likely to die from lung diseases than those in richer areas such as Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Barnet.

Though some of the differences between richer and poorer boroughs are likely to be due to factors such as smoking and generally lower health among the worse off, campaigners seized on the findings to make the link between respiratory problems and poor air quality.

Andrea Lee, healthy air campaigner for pressure group ClientEarth, said: “Air pollution is a public health crisis. The new mayor is rightly proposing bold policies to clean up the city’s air. But the government needs to get its act together. Instead of pushing for higher pollution limits in Brussels, the government needs to show leadership in limiting harmful pollutants.”

Figures recently revealed by the Guardian, which were in a report covered up by London’s previous mayor Boris Johnson, showed that some of the capital’s poorest schools were suffering levels of air pollution far higher than European legal limits.

Khan, recently elected mayor of London, reaffirmed his commitment to tackling air quality in the light of the study. He said: “This deeply concerning report shines a light on the huge health inequalities in London, as well as how poor air quality is a ticking timebomb for all our health, particularly for Londoners in the most deprived parts of the city.”

Air pollution is an increasing concern, as recent research has shown the problem is growing and at least 40,000 people across the UK are dying prematurely because of it. The government is facing renewed court action from campaigners over its failure to tackle the problem, some of which has resulted from the rise in the number of diesel cars on the road, and the repeated breaches of EU limits on pollutants.

The mother of a nine-year-old girl from south London who died of asthma in 2013 is also seeking an inquest and inquiry into whether air pollution was a factor, which if successful could lead to a new movement of legal action on behalf of victims. The girl, Ella Kissi-Debrah, lived in Hither Green near the capital’s busy South Circular Road.

Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “We know that air pollution can have a detrimental effect on the health of our most vulnerable citizens, and causes lasting damage. It’s a worry for everyone, making existing lung problems worse, increasing our risk of lung cancer and early death.”

Khan highlighted the BLF’s finding that residents of deprived boroughs were up to twice as likely to die from lung diseases than those in rich ones. However, while some deaths are likely to be down to air pollution, the picture is complex.

The link between air pollution and respiratory problems is proved, but the complication of people dying from lung diseases acquired from smoking, work and industry, and conditions they were born with means it is hard to draw a direct comparison with death rates from air pollution in rich and poor areas from this study.

Some sites in central London boroughs, including the richest ones of Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea, also suffer from very high pollution rates. For instance, Oxford Street in Westminster is one of the most polluted sites in the country.

Simon Birkett, founder and director of Clean Air in London, said: “Central London boroughs have the highest death rates attributable to dangerous airborne particles and nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas. It is fabulous therefore to see the mayor taking a lead but he will fail unless he bans diesel from the most polluted places before 2020.”

Khan’s plans include extending the capital’s low-emissions zone, which he may bring forward to before 2020, and extra charges on the most polluting vehicles within the congestion charge zone from 2017.

The British Lung Foundation said it was not possible to tell from the report how many deaths were owing to air pollution, but that it painted a picture of the stark health inequalities among London boroughs, with the boroughs with highest levels of lung disease also among the most polluted. However, it said more research would need to be done to show this causal relationship.

Woods said the report showed that lung disease, alongside cancer and cardiovascular disease, was one of the UK’s biggest killers. But she said it had been systematically neglected, despite initiatives to help people stop smoking and other awareness measures. “It is a common misconception that lung disease is just a smokers’ condition,” she said. ”Many people affected have never smoked. Any effective strategy for tackling lung disease will need to address more than just tobacco.”

Fiona Harvey

This article first appeared on the Guardian

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