Medical School study finds people used health services more when given air pollution warnings

Research carried out by Swansea University Medical School, in collaboration with Public Health Wales and Neath Port Talbot Council, has found that people who received alert messages to help them better manage their health on days when air pollution was high went on to use local health services more than they did before.

The research titled ’airAware Port Talbot: Evaluation of an Air Quality Alert System’ worked with 180 people in Neath Port Talbot with conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), asthma or coronary heart disease that may be worsened by poor air quality. The study aimed to find out if notifying people when air quality was poor could help them to avoid exposure on high pollution days and therefore reduce their health service use.

The research team, led by Professor Ronan Lyons at Swansea University Medical School, evaluated airAware, a real time public health air quality alerting service which sent air quality messages to 180 people by text, email or telephone for up to two years. People received alerts when air quality deteriorated.  Advice messages included recommendations to reduce activity, stay indoors and follow their Doctor’s usual advice if symptoms got worse.

The research project compared numbers of; hospital admissions, emergency department attendances, GP contacts and prescribed medications, for the group receiving airAware alerts and those not, before and during the two years that alerts were issued.

The research team found that emergency admissions and emergency attendances increased significantly for airAware users compared to non-users.

Emergency admissions doubled for all of the observed health conditions, with a four-fold increase in admissions for respiratory conditions (COPD and asthma). There was no significant change in the frequency of GP visits, the prescription of medications, outpatient attendances and emergency admissions for coronary heart disease for those receiving airAware alerts compared to the control group.

Sara Thomas, Public Health Consultant said: “Advising people with heart and lung conditions about avoiding exposure to air pollution continues to be important, but this study shows that communicating such messages using this alert mechanism did not have the intended effect.”

Speaking of the research findings, Professor Ronan Lyons Professor of Public Health at Swansea University Medical School said: “As a result of this study, the airAware service was stopped and the funding has been used for other public services.

“Further work is needed to understand why people receiving airAware alerts needed more emergency healthcare. One explanation could be that airAware users were more aware of local pollution levels which made them more likely to seek advice about their health, especially if they thought pollution affected their breathing.”

Full details of the research report can be found in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.