Children can benefit from lower emissions


A GROUNDBREAKING new study on the health impacts of central London’s recent initiatives to reduce traffic pollution could put pressure on other major cities to follow suit and cut emissions.

That’s according to asthma expert Prof Tak Lee, who told a conference in Dublin at the weekend about a unique study looking at how bringing down traffic-related emissions affects respiratory health in children.

Prof Lee, from King’s College London, said air pollution was a major environmental factor relating to health and that particulate matter with a diameter of under 10 microns, which is associated with traffic emissions, was of notable concern.

“When you inhale it, it impinges on the airways,” he said, explaining how the burden of toxic particles can damage cells. “The closer you are to main roads, the more problems you tend to have.”

Studies to date have shown correlations between respiratory illness and pollution, but intervention studies are now needed, according to Prof Lee.

The introduction of the “low emission zone” in central London in February 2008, which levies charges on lorries, buses, coaches and other high-emitting vehicles entering the area, offers a unique platform for such research, he added.

“It’s a window of opportunity for us to have an insight into the role of pollution in respiratory health.”

The new study draws on air pollution data from the London Air Quality Network, and is also gathering details of respiratory health, pollution exposure and vitamin D status from schoolchildren in the affected region.

So far the researchers have collected data from about 300 children, aged between eight and 10, in 30 schools.

The findings will be compared with baseline information collected from thousands of children before the low emission zone came into effect.

Prof Lee told The Irish Timesthat it was too early to draw any conclusions from the current study yet, but that ultimately the project’s findings could push cities elsewhere to work on reducing traffic-related emissions.

“Other cities don’t have a low emission zone, this is why this study is so unique,” he said. “But the information that we have is critical for them – if we show health benefits, then there will be enormous pressure on every major city to have it.”

The study was described as “monumental” by Prof Stephen Lane, a consultant respiratory physician at Tallaght Hospital, who chaired the session on asthma and the environment.

“It’s a very important study not only in terms of understanding the basic mechanisms of asthma, but also to potentially shape health policy beyond central London,” he said.

Saturday’s conference at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, which was hosted by the Asthma Society of Ireland and the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland, also heard from experts based in Canada and Finland about national approaches to detecting and managing asthma.

Finland in particular has seen dramatic results through a 10-year programme that emphasised early detection of the condition, proactive treatment, guided self-management by patients and improved education.

“The key words are motivate and organise,” said Prof Tari Haahtela from Helsinki University Hospital, who headed the Finnish programme.