Around the world, concern is growing over the quality of the air that people – particularly big city dwellers – are forced to breathe. In London during January, air quality was so bad that legally mandated pollution limits for the whole of 2017 were passed in the first week of the year. The city's mayor, Sadiq Khan, spoke of what he called a "public health emergency", as toxic air hung over the central boroughs, a problem exacerbated by unusually calm weather patterns.
Everyone is at risk when conditions like these persist, but the potential health risks are even worse for anyone with respiratory or heart issues, with asthmatics often experiencing serious problems. Evidence is also mounting that cases of chronic bronchitis increase with worsening air quality. The figures for air pollution-related deaths in London alone are astonishing; every year, almost 9500 people in the city die early because of pollution-linked conditions, according to research conducted in 2015 by scientists from King's College.
Measures such as banning certain kinds of traffic in parts of a city, or restricting people from using private vehicles, can have a beneficial effect locally. But changing weather patterns or unusual conditions can result in pollution from other areas – even other countries – having a dramatic impact in distant cities. The ability of people and governments to work across borders to combat problems like this becomes immediately apparent under such conditions.
EU takes action
Around six weeks after the January pollution spike in London, the EEB (European Environmental Bureau) announced that five EU countries were consistently breaching air pollution limits. The UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy were, the EEB claimed, failing in their duty to protect people's health, and legal proceedings would follow. Furthermore, the EEB statement pointed out that this was not a new issue; the situation had been going on for years.
One particular pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, was singled out for its likely effect on young children with asthma, and its probable contribution to increased cases of bronchitis and other lung infections. It is the job of the European Commission to ensure that EU laws regarding air quality are upheld, and recent EU legislation includes new and more stringent emissions targets. The EEB's senior air pollution policy officer, Louise Duprez, said there was "no excuse" for not meeting the targets, and that children "deserved better" than to grow up inhaling toxic air.
Bronchitis: causes and treatment
Bronchitis is frequently mentioned as one of the effects of air pollution, though of course poor environmental air quality is not the only risk factor. Bronchitis, like pneumonia, is an infection of the airways and/or lungs, and can be a mild and relatively short-lived condition – acute bronchitis – experienced by people who have simply caught a cold. When the condition becomes a long-term, more serious health problem, it's known as chronic bronchitis.
The chances of developing bronchitis are increased by a number of factors, smoking being one of the most common. Chronic bronchitis can vary in intensity throughout the year, and environmental factors can have a causative effect, and can also make the condition worse. The main symptoms of both the acute and chronic varieties of the infection are a persistent cough with chest/lung discomfort or pain, and possible breathing problems. In emphysema sufferers, chronic bronchitis can lead to COPD, which can cause permanent lung damage in the long term.
There are a number of recommended ways to avoid contracting bronchitis, and stopping smoking is, unsurprisingly, at the top of the list. Not only does smoking cause lung damage, it lowers the body's resistance to infection. Staying within alcohol consumption guidelines – currently 14 units or fewer per week – and eating a healthy diet can help the immune system to fight infections.
It's important to be aware that bronchitis can be caused by both viruses and bacteria. Viral infections are not treatable with antibiotics. Mild cases of acute bronchitis may not require treatment, and in fact, using cough medicines is generally not recommended, as the body needs to expel phlegm by coughing. You should see a GP if your symptoms get worse or the condition doesn't clear up relatively quickly. In cases where antibiotics are appropriate, you may be able to order them from The Online Clinic – see the Free Online Assessment at the link.