Professor Rosie McEachan, director of the Born in Bradford

New research funded by the National Institute for Health Research has shed light on the impact of air pollution on healthcare attendance for breathing difficulties in Bradford. According to the data-driven study, which observed over 120,000 patients over four years, approximately one-in-two healthcare visits for respiratory issues, like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), may be triggered by breaches in daily air pollution limits.

The study’s findings have revealed a more significant connection between pungent gases and healthcare utilisation than previously reported. Moreover, it has brought attention to the underestimated delayed effects of exposure to high levels of air pollution. Surprisingly, patients were still experiencing the repercussions of pollutants up to 100 days after exposure, prompting concern among the researchers.

The investigation, conducted by experts from the Born in Bradford (BiB) program, extensively analysed data from 114,930 GP visits and 9,878 A&E attendances for respiratory problems occurring between January 2018 and December 2021. This comprehensive study, one of the largest of its kind worldwide, identified a troubling trend. When daily levels of nitrogen dioxide, a component of car exhaust emissions, exceeded the recommended limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), up to 35% of GP patients with respiratory issues and 49% of A&E patients were found to be affected.

The economic burden of pollution-related healthcare visits during the study in Bradford is estimated to be £2m, surpassing previous projections. These findings underscore the urgency of addressing air pollution levels to safeguard public health and alleviate the strain on the NHS.

Professor Rosie McEachan, director of the Born in Bradford study and senior author of the report, said: “Some 500 people die in Bradford each year from respiratory disease and we know that air pollution is a contributory factor.

“Our research has shown that when air pollution is high, there is an increase in demand at our hospitals and GPs, which can put pressure on our services.

“We think previous research may have underestimated the impact of pollution on health care use, as it mainly focused on what happens immediately – on the day of the high pollution.”

She added: “Our study, which used anonymised data covering the entire Bradford population, broke new ground as for the first time we were able to assess the impacts of pollution that may only present later.

“These findings are a cause for concern for Bradford as the air quality tracking discovered that pollution levels were exceeded on an average of 157 days per year – 43% of the time.”

Dr Brad Wilson, a consultant in the Accident and Emergency department at Bradford Royal Infirmary, one of the busiest in the NHS, said: “‘GP and A&E services are under great pressures.

“This evidence shows how we can reduce those pressures by tackling air pollution.

“If our communities can breathe cleaner air then it is good for their health and good for the NHS.”