A combination of pollution and sand blown northwards from the Sahara caused several days of reduced air quality, with eastern England particularly blighted.
Helen Jefford, specialist physiotherapist with Greenwich Community Health Services in London, part of Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust, said when the pollution was at its worst a helpline run by the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) team experienced an estimated 20 per cent increase in calls.
Most of those calls would have resulted in a home visit by a team member, she added. ‘And we have certainly seen more patients who have come along to our clinics who have needed treatment.’
Fluctuations in call volume were common, Ms Jefford said, particularly during the flu season or hot weather. But the pollution was unusual. ‘I could taste it in the air and my car kept getting covered in dust.’
In line with Public Health England recommendations, advice to patients was to reduce strenuous physical exertion, particularly outdoors, and for those with asthma to keep their reliever inhaler with them at all times.
Lynn McDonnell, clinical specialist physiotherapist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in central London, said: ‘We certainly saw an increase in asthma patients.’
Ms McDonnell, public relations officer for the Association for Chartered Physiotherapists in Respiratory Care, said it was too early to say categorically that the increase was linked to pollution because of the ‘natural ebb and flow’ of COPD and asthma cases. ‘There’s a big increase in pollen count at this time of year but the spike was bigger than usual so it’s more likely to be the pollution.’
In 2005 a CSP analysis of monitoring points found dangerous levels of toxic pollutants across the UK. One site in London recorded nitrogen dioxide levels three times higher than the government’s target.
The World Health Organization estimates that in 2012 about seven million people worldwide died as a result of exposure to air pollution – one in eight of all global deaths.
The Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs says that of the most common pollutants, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone all irritate the lining of the lungs and worsen existing lung disease.
Carbon monoxide affects the supply of oxygen to the heart; and particulate pollutants can be carried deep into the lining of the lungs, causing inflammation.
Ms Jefford said widespread media coverage of the recent pollution had increased patients’ awareness of potential health problems. ‘It was on the news every day and was given a good amount of coverage. In terms of our patients’ understanding and what they needed to do, it did help.’