Focus: New link between asthma and diesel fumes shows the campaign must go on

For two years this newspaper has helped raise awareness of a disease that affects 5.2 million people in Britain. Policies and lives have changed, but there is still much to do. Severin Carrell and Geoffrey Lean report on a crisis in research funding and dramatic new science that shows pollution from exhaust fumes can cause asthma

Major new scientific findings suggest that air pollution from vehicles can cause asthma in previously healthy people as well as triggering attacks in people with the disease.

Major new scientific findings suggest that air pollution from vehicles can cause asthma in previously healthy people as well as triggering attacks in people with the disease.

Until now, scientists had believed traffic fumes simply worsened everyday life for asthmatics. But research on both sides of the Atlantic now suggests that tiny "particulates" from exhausts can sidestep the body's natural defences and set off asthma.

Diesel, which is being heavily promoted by ministers as a "green" fuel that can help combat global warming, is most to blame.

"These microscopic particles are a major threat to human health," said Professor Stephen Holgate, one of the Government's most senior advisers on air pollution, who is opening a major conference on asthma backed by The Independent on Sunday on 28 April (see below).

"There is a strong suspicion that particulates in air pollution are playing a much greater role in the causation of asthma than has previously been realised," said Professor Holgate, who chairs the official Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards.

"The latest scientific evidence suggests that particulates are now the most important type of air pollutant that threatens human health."

The new findings raised serious questions about the safety of diesel cars, said Professor Holgate. He was talking ahead of a new effort to push asthma to the top of the Government's agenda later this month, when some of Britain's top asthma experts and campaigners will meet at London's Royal Society of Medicine for a conference on the disease.

The event is being co-sponsored by the IoS as part of its ongoing asthma campaign, which began two years ago when scientific evidence of a definite link between pollution and asthma emerged.

The campaign raised the profile of asthma in the UK dramatically and caused ministers and the European Commission to reappraise official policies on ozone pollution. Now the conference will focus on the latest research and try to set new scientific priorities - one of the most significant gaps in the Government's strategy.

A global survey confirmed the UK's status at the top of the world's asthma league table, last month with GPs seeing 20,000 new cases each week. Yet the burden of investigating and reversing this phenomenon is shouldered almost entirely by charities such as the National Asthma Campaign (NAC), which can only afford £2m a year on research, and the pharmaceutical companies, whose main interest is to sell drugs, not cures.

Professor Martyn Partridge, the NAC's chief scientist, described government res- earch spending on respiratory illnesses as "lamentable". Ministers, he said, had failed to fund any - admittedly expensive - projects to stop people getting asthma.

In the light of his latest findings, Professor Holgate, who has published 400 papers on asthma and allergies and sits on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, called for greater efforts to design much more effective "particulate traps" to be fitted to diesel exhausts.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has led a government push to increase the use of diesel cars in Britain by introducing lower taxes for the fuel and for the cars that use it. As a result, sales of diesel cars have leapt by a third in recent years. This is presented as a "green" policy because diesel engines emit much less carbon dioxide - the main cause of global warming - than petrol-powered engines. But they also emit far more of the particulates.

Professor Holgate's warnings were backed by a leading US expert due to speak at the conference, Dr Rob McConnell, who said ministers should "think twice" about their support for diesel. "It helps reduce CO2, but I think there's increasing literature that suggests diesel exhaust particles have some serious respiratory effects."

The findings will increase pressure on ministers and car-makers to tackle traffic pollution as part of efforts to combat an asthma epidemic which affects 5.2 million Britons, giving the UK the world's highest incidence of the disease.

Pioneering research in 2002 by a team at the University of Southern California led by Dr McConnell suggested that ozone in the atmosphere, created by the interaction of sunlight on car exhausts, caused asthma in children who regularly played open-air sports.

Now both Dr McConnell and Professor Holgate believe a major research effort is needed into the damage being caused by particulates. Britain and the EU lag far behind the US in investigating their impact on human health, said Professor Holgate, who is based at Southampton General Hospital.

He will tell the conference that air pollution is emerging as a key area for asthma research. Studies have made it more clear that microscopic particles are a trigger for asthma attacks, and could work beside pollen to set off severe attacks by inflaming the lungs, he said.

But the latest findings also show particulates are so small that they can sneak through the lungs' natural defences and damage the body's cells, causing asthma and other respiratory illnesses in susceptible people. The same mechanism, he said, was now being linked to heart attacks and coronary thrombosis.

Professor Holgate stressed that other environmental and genetic factors played a greater role in causing asthma, such as poor diet during pregnancy and a lack of exposure to allergens during infancy. Unhealthy eatingincreased the risks that particulates would damage the vulnerable, he said, because their bodies' natural defences would be far weaker.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West, performing in New York last week, has been the subject of controversy as rock's traditional headline slot at Glastonbury is lost once again
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living