I'd advise anyone against driving through London with the windows down

My chest tight, I stifled yet another cough and struggled to concentrate.

But as my breath, which I’d spent all morning hoping would ease, grew dangerously short, I knew I needed help.

‘I’m sorry, I just have to step outside,’ I told my patient, forcing a smile as I left the room.

‘I’m having an asthma attack,’ I wheezed to a passing colleague. As they whisked me to a side room and put me on a nebuliser, I felt physically better, but emotionally, I felt mortified.

I’d had to stop treating people to deal with my own medical emergency. As doctors, we are supposed to be the heroes who can protect our patients – and I felt like I’d let mine down.

And it was all down to London’s toxic air – something that is having a devastating impact not just on me, but on the thousands of others in the capital with lung conditions.

I was diagnosed with asthma at the age of seven after being exposed to cigarette smoke at a social gathering and having my first attack.

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Growing up in Plymouth with a father who was a doctor and a mother who was a nurse, it was drilled into me the importance of recognising my triggers, taking my inhalers as prescribed, eating well, and exercising regularly.

But, when I moved to London to pursue my medical career, I noticed that the air itself often made me feel breathless and my asthma was getting worse. Returning to Devon to see my family always felt like a relief, as my breathing was so much better there.

I’d only been in London a few years, when I experienced my first air quality-related asthma attack one day, while I was stuck in busy traffic. Luckily, I was in my car and only a short journey away, so managed to get home without needing medical treatment, but the experience shocked me. 

Back then, I was living on the busy Euston Road, and although I was always proactive about managing my asthma, I was often wheezy – to the extent that I even made the decision to move to Chiswick, where the air felt cleaner.

Of course, I know I was lucky to be able to make that kind of drastic change. So many people in London simply aren’t that fortunate and have no choice but to breathe in dirty air, as it’s not possible for them to move.

However, it was after relocating, that I had my asthma attack at work, in the middle of a shift in one of London’s busiest emergency departments.

It was July 2018 and at 25, I’d driven to work through terrible traffic with the car windows down. By the time I got to the hospital, every breath was the hugest effort.

I took my reliever inhaler and, thinking I’d soon start to feel better and aware of how many people were depending on me, I tried to carry on. But after a couple of hours, my breathing just got gradually worse.

When it got so bad that it would have made it dangerous to continue to treat patients, I had to stop. Once the nebuliser had helped me get my breathing under control, I was sent home to recover.

It was an extremely scary experience.

The link between asthma, air quality and busy roads is impossible to ignore.

Indeed, new analysis from Asthma + Lung UK shows that 24 out of the 30 top London GP practices in London with the highest asthma prevalence are in outer London, outside of the current ultra-low-emission-zone (ULEZ).

The charity also found that 70% of these surgeries with the highest prevalence are within a mile of the busiest roads in the capital. Many of these roads, such as the A40, A127, and A41, exceed annual air quality levels set by the World Health Organisation.

With air pollution contributing to up to 43,000 premature deaths a year in this country – extending the ULEZ to cover the whole of London so that everyone is better protected from traffic fumes, can’t come soon enough.

But more needs to be done. At the very least, we need better air quality alerts like the ones we have for pollen counts and an adequately funded government scrappage grant scheme so people can afford to replace their polluting cars.

Also, people need to be more aware of the real health emergency that bad air quality is, and how it leaves people battling to breathe.

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It worries me that so many children are growing up unaware of this invisible threat that is all around them and impossible for them to avoid.

Yet I don’t believe all is lost. The extended ULEZ, which comes into force in August, will improve the air for everyone in London, and as more people prioritise their lung health, the clamour for cleaner, greener, more affordable transport, including better cycling, and walking and wheelchair-friendly routes, is getting louder by the day.

For now, though, those of us with lung conditions need to do what we can to protect ourselves.

At 30, I’m doing well with my asthma, but it takes work. I’ve always exercised daily, but I never run near a busy road as I know the fumes could trigger another asthma attack. I’m also careful to keep my windows up when I’m in traffic.

I take my preventer inhaler daily as prescribed, and would encourage others with asthma to do the same, and to learn what to do in the event of an asthma attack.

I want to see politicians taking bolder action to tackle pollution. Because as a doctor, I dream of a time when we can all breathe clean air, regardless of where we live.

Dr. Daniel Olaiya appears regularly on TV and radio and is a critical care and anaesthesia doctor in central London. He is about to launch a UK tour of his STEM stage show for school children, and is also backing the work of Asthma + Lung UK to clean up the air we breathe.

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