A growing body of evidence demonstrates a link between poor air quality and asthma, with recent findings revealing the UK has the highest rates of childhood asthma caused by air pollution in Europe. As many as one in five new cases of childhood asthma in the UK are linked to traffic fumes and other pollution, totalling nearly 40,000 cases a year.
Pollution from traffic can damage airways, leading to inflammation and the development of asthma in children who are genetically predisposed to the condition. Lorcan, aged two and a half, was diagnosed with a severe viral wheeze in June 2018. Since then, he has been in and out of hospital following seven episodes, with consultants confirming that air pollution from cars is a significant contributory factor.
Ruth Fitzharris, based in Crouch End in North London, shares her story about Lorcan’s condition and what she thinks needs to be done to clean up the Capital’s dirty air.
London's toxic air
Ruth said: “When Lorcan was first diagnosed his consultant advised us to walk on quieter back streets and try to avoid taking the tube which is hugely debilitating in the capital. Since then I have felt trapped. I used to enjoy taking him into central London but now those places are bad for him and the air is becoming noticeably worse.
“Even in my local area, walking down the road you can see back-to-back traffic pumping out toxic fumes. A simple trip to the shops is an anxiety-inducing experience but I don’t have any choice in the air my son and I breathe.
The impact of air pollution on little lungs
“Over the course of the past year, Lorcan’s had seven episodes. Because of this, he has been in and out of the hospital for three days at a time to receive intense treatment. This involves receiving medication through an inhaler for which he has to be pinned down because he is too young and distressed to co-operate, with each episode he has been given the inhaler around 50 times, oxygen masks and nebulisers and a medication called prednisolone which can inhibit growth.
“As a result, Lorcan’s height and weight has slipped from the 50th to the 9th centile. He has also become less agile and he’s missed out on quite a lot of playing with other children and going to the nursery – the sort of things that other children take for granted.
“He is too young to understand that he has to have the medication and becomes extremely agitated, so he’s not able to sleep much while we're in the hospital. The process is very distressing for us both and we don’t get much sleep at the hospital.
“Because of the frequency of his episodes, my plans to get a job have been delayed and I cancelled being maid of honour at my best friend’s wedding. This recovery time from each episode is physically and mentally draining. And not just for me, the whole family is on edge whenever he goes back to the hospital. The anxiety and stress have a huge impact on our everyday lives.
Reducing our dependency on cars
“There needs to be a big reduction in the use of polluting vehicles in cities. There is traffic everywhere you look. Public transport is very congested and our cities lack an extensive well-connected cycling network like in Holland. It would be fantastic to retrofit dedicated cycling and walking infrastructure on our roads.
“We’re lucky that we have access to medication which has prevented him from having an episode for four months. But that doesn’t stop the anxiety and stress I feel when taking the tube or walking down a road packed full of cars idling their engines.
“I don’t have time to wait for the Government to take action. I met another mother in a similar situation a couple of months back who has now left Islington and is living in Winchester. This is the reality of the Capital’s chronic air problem. Probably the only way to escape it is to leave.”