February 28, 2024

A new study in Oxford has found that emergency hospital admissions for asthma dropped by 41% in 2020 as air pollution from traffic fell due to Covid restrictions.

Dr Suzanne Bartington from the University of Birmingham, who led the Oxford study, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic led to a unique opportunity where we could study the impacts of rapid changes in human activities on air quality.”

National studies have already found large falls in the number of asthma exacerbations during the 2020 lockdowns. This included a 36% reduction in admissions for asthma in Wales and Scotland, but the Oxford study is the first UK-based analysis to include air pollution directly.

The researchers found peaks in asthma admissions that coincided with peaks of air pollution in 2015 and 2019.

The 41% decrease in emergency asthma admissions in Oxford in 2020, compared with the five years before, came as different air pollutants decreased by between 18% and 33%. Asthma admissions to Oxford’s John Radcliffe hospital dropped from more than 15 a month to as low as one for some months in 2020.

Overall, consistent relationships were found between air pollutants and asthma admissions. Less air pollution was associated with fewer asthmatics being admitted to hospital, including the changes in lockdowns.

Separate analysis from Dublin, Cork and Meath in Ireland also show similar patterns.

Councillor Anna Railton, who leads on net zero policy for Oxford city council, said: “This is yet more evidence about the link between air pollution and the health of residents. It is therefore imperative that we continue to make the necessary changes to improve air quality across Oxford and in cities and towns everywhere.”

The experiences of asthmatics during lockdown suggest that benefits were also felt in everyday symptoms.

Adrian Hill is asthmatic and lives in Brighton. During 2019 his breathing was so poor that he started routinely measuring and recording his lung function. “I use a peak flow meter in the morning when I brush my teeth, and then again in the evening before I go to bed,” he said. “I scribble this on paper and every few weeks I update my spreadsheet.”

In four years, one period stands out. Hill’s lung function slowly improved after government advice to avoid non-essential travel on 16 March 2020, and then with lockdown one week later. Two weeks into the lockdown it reached its best value in four years. It stayed like this until the phased end of restrictions in June, after which his breathing worsened again.

The hospital data from Oxford, and the experiences of people with asthma, point to the benefits that could come from reducing air pollution.

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