It sounds the worst sort of environment for a boy allergic to pollen and animal hair, but living close to the countryside has, according to his mother, Jackie, saved Michael Fielding's life. For nearly eight years Michael and his mother struggled to cope with his asthma, which developed when he was a year old. It meant cutting out different foods from his diet, keeping the house scrupulously clean and free from dust, checking that he took his medication, making sure he didn't spend too long out of doors exposed to plants and cut grass. The house had to be aired in the morning, and the windows shut by mid-afternoon when traffic was at its worst.
Exhausted, Jackie took Michael to stay at her sister's house in East Grinstead, East Sussex. After a fortnight he was well again, a changed boy, able to breathe easily. A few weeks later, back home in the south London suburb of Beckenham, the wheezing began again. Soon Michael needed emergency treatment. Again, Jackie took him to Sussex, and he recovered, the colour returning to his cheeks. The penny dropped.
"We lived between two main roads – the M25 and an A-road leading into London. From 3pm to 8pm every day the traffic was non-stop.
"In the summer the effect was particularly bad, and Michael was in and out of hospital for emergency treatment because he couldn't breathe. I started to realise that every time we left London, he got better."
Michael had constant respiratory infections as a baby and was diagnosed as asthmatic by the time he was one. Tests revealed him to be allergic to all manner of things, from foods – dairy products, eggs, nuts, peanuts, fish, oranges – to dust, pollen, smoke, polish, pets, and cut grass.
"We lived a regimented life. The house was like a prison, and all our energies were directed at making sure Michael was not put at risk," explained his mother.
"We got rid of carpets and as many soft furnishings as possible. During the high pollen counts, I would air the house after 9am and then close it up completely as the count rose in the afternoon."
But it was the traffic that proved to be the worst offender, according to Jackie, causing Michael to suffer numerous asthma attacks.
"If I took him to the shops, he would be wheezing by the time we had taken the short walk along the high street," she recalled.
"He would have a terrible cough and would have to use his nebuliser. In the end I had to arrange to take him out only at certain times of day when the traffic was at its lightest. It got to the point where we were always indoors by 3pm."
Jackie was convinced that traffic fumes and exhaust emissions were exacerbating Michael's condition. As a little boy, he, like so many toddlers, came into close proximity to fumes because he sat in a low-slung buggy. The condition was always at its worst during hot summer weather.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Jackie decided that she had to take drastic action, and the family moved to East Grinstead. "Since then, Michael has steadily improved. He has lapses but we are not racing to and from the hospital. And best of all, he can play outside. He never used to be able to do that."
She remains convinced that the combination of pollution with other allergens was mostly to blame for Michael's condition.
In East Grinstead, the Fieldings live near farmland, but the pollen does not affect Michael so much.
Another significant improvement to Michael's life has been his move to another school. His East Grinstead teachers have devised an asthma policy for him, and they are aware of his condition and how not to make it worse. That means he has to avoid certain foods, stay away from cut grass, and not go outside during bitterly cold weather.
"At his previous school, the staff were very kind but I never felt safe. They didn't understand that he mustn't go near a lawnmower, or eat other children's sandwiches. I know they thought I was just a paranoid mother but I wasn't prepared to live with a choking child. Schools have got to realise how important their role is in making the lives of asthmatic children bearable. It really can be a matter of life or death."