Lung conditions will be made worse by climate change, say researchers

People with lung conditions are among those most at risk from the changing climate, a group of respiratory experts has said.

They are calling for urgent action to stop climate change and reduce air pollution.

High temperatures, changing weather patterns, an increase in pollen and other allergens as well as wildfires, dust storms and fossil fuel-based traffic all exacerbate existing respiratory conditions or can create new ones.

Climate change’s impact on the planet and human health is now “irreversible”, the authors said, and the two are interlinked.

Air pollution is estimated to have killed 6.7 million people globally in 2019 and 373,000 in Europe, with greenhouse gases and air pollution sharing many of the same sources.

In a peer-reviewed editorial in the European Respiratory Journal, the authors want the EU to lower the safe limit of air pollution in line with the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Professor Zorana Jovanovic Andersen of the University of Copenhagen and an author of the report said: “Climate change affects everyone’s health, but arguably, respiratory patients are among the most vulnerable.

“These are people who already experience breathing difficulties and they are far more sensitive to our changing climate. Their symptoms will become worse, and for some this will be fatal.”

Children are more affected by climate change and air pollution because their lungs are still developing, they breathe faster and inhale two to three times more air than adults while spending more time outdoors.

Exposure to air pollution early in life could make it more likely that people develop chronic lung diseases later on, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or bronchitis from smoking, the authors said.

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions and stopping the planet from further heating would lead to “substantially larger and more immediate benefits”, the authors wrote, as people’s health would swiftly improve as air becomes cleaner.

Recent WHO reports have said that reducing emissions would result in better air quality, therefore regulating air pollution should be “at the heart” of any climate strategy, the authors wrote.

Traffic is a significant source of both air pollution and greenhouse gases in cities (Dave Thompson/PA)

On behalf of the European Respiratory Society, which represents more than 30,000 lung specialists from 160 countries, the authors want the EU to bring its air quality standards in line with the WHO.

The limits are currently 25 micrograms per cubic metre for fine particles (PM2.5) and 40 micrograms per cubic metre for nitrogen dioxide, compared with the WHO’s five micrograms per cubic metre for PM2.5 and 10 micrograms per cubic metre for nitrogen dioxide.

The UK Government has set a target of 10 micrograms per cubic metre for PM2.5 by 2040, saying it was impossible to match the WHO guidelines because of emissions blowing over the English Channel and from shipping.

There is also a limit of 40 micrograms per cubic metre for nitrogen dioxide, set in 2010 in line with the EU.

Professor Jovanovic Andersen said: “We all need to breathe clean, safe air. That means we need action from policy-makers to mitigate impacts of climate change on our planet and our health.

“As respiratory doctors and nurses, we need to be aware of these new risks and do all we can to help alleviate patients’ suffering.

“We also need to explain the risks to our patients so they can protect themselves from adverse effects of climate change.”