Sharp rise in asthma cases linked to air pollution

The incidence of asthma more than doubled in Britain during the 1980s, according to figures released in response to parliamentary questions by the Labour Party's environment team.1 Labour claims that the rise is linked to the increase in vehicle pollution during the decade.

The asthma data are summarised in the table below. They show the number of hospital episodes with a main diagnosis of asthma.

Overall, recorded asthma cases in Britain increased by 136% between 1979 and 1990. The rate of increase varied between regions, but the full regional data given in the parliamentary answers show that substantial increases were recorded in all 39 health regions of the country during the 1980s, with most recording an increase in almost every year. The steepest rate of increase in England was in the West Midlands, where asthma diagnoses rose from 3,510 in 1979 to 10,034 in 1990/1.

According to junior Health Minister Tom Sackville, the causes of the trend are not known, "but some proportion of the increase can be attributed to a change in diagnostic practice." The Government has, however, acknowledged recently that air pollution can trigger asthma attacks in people who are already asthmatic. A sub-group of its Committee on the Medical Aspects of Air Pollution is carrying out a review of air pollution and asthma, and is due to report later this year.

Labour is linking the trend in asthma cases to vehicle pollution. Emissions of particulates, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide from the road transport sector all reached record highs at the end of the 1980s. Labour's shadow Environment Minister, George Howarth, said that the figures "show that no region...has escaped the effects of the Tories' refusal to modernise our public transport systems. Our children are paying the price for Tory dogma in increased incidence of asthma across the country."

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