Air pollution has twice the impact on lung function for members of lower-income households, research has suggested, and it increases their risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by three times.
Scientists from universities in Canada, Switzerland and the UK studied the data of over 300,000 people aged 40-69 who enrolled in the UK Biobank study to examine whether exposure to PM10, PM2.5 and NO2 was linked to changes in lung function.
They also wanted to find out whether it affected participants’ risk of developing COPD, which according to the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project is the third leading cause of death worldwide.
The research has been published today (July 9, 2019) in the European Respiratory Journal and reveals a wide disparity in how air pollution affects people from different economic backgrounds.
Researchers put the gap down to poorer housing conditions or diet, worse access to healthcare or the long-term effects of poverty affecting lung growth in childhood.
They also say people in low-income households are more likely to have worked in outdoor or factory jobs that have already reduced their lung function.
However, they said further research is needed to investigate the differences in effects between people from lower and higher income homes as they were not able to track participants’ exposure to pollutants throughout a regular day.
Researchers also found that for people living in areas with PM2.5 concentrations above World Health Organization (WHO) annual average guidelines of ten micrograms per cubic meter (10 μg/m3), COPD prevalence was four times higher than among people who were exposed to passive smoking at home, and prevalence was half that of people who have ever been a smoker.
It’s estimated that 1.2 million people in the UK suffer from COPD.
Responding to the study, Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: ‘It is clearly wrong how well off you are can determine the health of your lungs,
‘COPD is more common in the country’s most deprived households, which typically have higher smoking rates.
‘However, this research has taken smoking into account, so we need answers as to why those earning the least are the most vulnerable to respiratory diseases like COPD,’ she added.
‘Living with a lung condition can leave you less capable of work and at a greater risk of an early death – a vicious circle which simply has to be broken.’
Last month, a study suggested that despite over ten years of air quality policy, inequality in exposure to traffic-related air pollution has widened.
The research, led by academics at the Air Quality Management Resource Centre (AQMRC) at the University of the West of England, Bristol, found that social inequalities in traffic-related pollution exposure are ‘clearer and stronger’ than ever before.
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