Unborn babies and old people harmed by air pollution, studies warn

Aron Van de Pol  Unsplash

Two studies published by researchers in London this week (5 December) have uncovered health impacts from exposure to air pollution in both unborn babies and the over-60s.

Pollution likely has similar effects on people of all ages, the study's authors add.

Researchers estimated average monthly concentrations of traffic-related pollutants by looking at the mother's home address at the time of birth. However, it is still a notorious area for dirty air, with high levels of black carbon, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particulate matter.

The second study, published in The Lancet, suggested that short term exposure to air pollution in built up areas can prevent the positive effects on the heart and lungs that can be gained from light exercise such as walking in older adults.

The researchers from Imperial College London and Duke University in the US recruited 119 people for the study who were either healthy, had stable heart disease, or stable chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - a type of lung disease.

A team led by Imperial College London used national birth registers to study more than 540,000 births in Greater London between 2006 and 2010.

The Lancet study included 119 adults aged 60 or over, including 40 healthy volunteers, 40 with stable COPD and 39 with stable ischaemic heart disease.

Physical measurements were taken before and after the walks to show the effects of the exercise on cardiovascular health, including measurements of lung volume exhaled, blood pressure, and the degree to which the blood vessels could expand.

The participants were randomly assigned to walk around either Oxford Street or Hyde Park.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged to make reducing air pollution one of his top priorities and announced a global network to tackle the issue while on a trip to Delhi this week. Data analysis was carried out at the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College London and Kings College London, and the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey.

While people doing the park walk had increased blood flow and their arteries became less stiff by 24% in some cases, the Oxford Street walkers saw barely any improvement, with just a 4.6% improvement for healthy volunteers.

But for those in the Oxford Street group there was only a tiny increase in lung capacity, and arterial stiffness got 7 per cent worse.

The health impact of pollution was particularly marked in participants with COPD, who experienced a narrowing of the small airways-reporting more respiratory symptoms including cough, sputum production, shortness of breath, and wheeze-and increased arterial stiffness after walking in Oxford Street compared with Hyde Park. Walking in Hyde Park reduced arterial stiffness by a maximum of more than 24 percent in the healthy and COPD volunteers and by more than 19 percent in the patients with heart disease.

The researchers also note that stress from the increased noise and activity of Oxford Street may have had an effect on the study's results.

Walking is the sort of low impact exercise recommended by the NHS for older people to improve their cardiovascular fitness, but the study found that the impact of air pollution negated this.

The damage done by breathing in traffic fumes outweighs the benefits of physical activity, scientists found.

'For people living in the inner city it may be hard to find areas where they can walk, away from pollution ... we really need to reduce pollution by controlling traffic'.

Simon Gillespie, chief executive at the British Heart Foundation, said: "Air pollution contributes to around 40,000 premature deaths in the United Kingdom every year, and the extent of its damage to our cardiovascular health is becoming clearer all of the time".

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