SEGH Articles

BREATH Study: Air pollution & COPD within Semi-rural Areas

08 May 2019
Carly Woods, a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), tells us about The Border and Regions Airways Training Hub (BREATH)

The Border and Regions Airways Training Hub (BREATH) was initiated with a €7.7m grant from the European Union INTERREG VA Programme.  This consortium was formed as a collaboration between three research centres; the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) and Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).  Together, the members of the partnership are dedicated to the investigation of COPD pathogenesis, improvement of public awareness and ultimately alleviation of disease burden.

COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) is an umbrella term used to encompass two distinct, often concurring pulmonary disorders; emphysema and chronic bronchitis.  Emphysema develops as a result of deterioration of the alveolar walls within the lung parenchyma, thereby reducing surface area and disrupting gas exchange at the air-blood interface. Chronic bronchitis occurs when inflammation and mucus hypersecretion contribute to bronchi airway narrowing; together, these disorders manifest via symptoms such as breathlessness, wheezing, and productive cough.  Although distinct, these conditions are often categorised together as they share a common primary cause: exposure to noxious particles such as those which comprise cigarette smoke and ambient air pollution. 

Within parts of Scotland and Ireland, the prevalence of COPD is particularly high (e.g. in South West Scotland where death due to COPD is up to 1.68 fold higher than the national average); current estimations suggest that ~20% of cases of this non-communicable disease are not smoking related.  Furthermore, within the UK, elevated ambient pollution levels have been observed to correspond with rates of morbidity and mortality of COPD sufferers. For these reasons, the relationship between the incidence of COPD and fluctuation in air quality is of particular interest, with numerous epidemiological studies already confirming an association in countries such as Taiwan, China and the US. 

Carly Woods setting up an air quality monitor

Carly Woods setting up an air quality monitor

A key BREATH project is focused on the association between airborne xenobiotics and COPD, primarily within semi-rural areas (Ayrshire and Dumfries & Galloway); specifically particulate matter (PM10 & PM2.5) and gaseous pollutants (NO2 & O3). The identified regions have not been declared as Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) but have insufficient monitoring to allow an accurate understanding of air quality dynamics to underpin this investigation.  A network of low-cost air quality monitors will be deployed within these regions to assess air quality based on a number of parameters with samples of PM characterised on the basis of main chemical indicators. UWS PhD student Carly Woods (pictured) is undertaking targeted field observations to follow up on this aspect.  In particular metal ratios in PM will be used to understand PM source apportionment. Based on field observations, PM and gaseous pollutants will be applied to in vitro models. Subsequent analysis of exposure effects of concomitant and singular xenobiotics will allow determination of the propensity of regional tropospheric particles and gases to induce or exacerbate COPD, and also help to identify the most deleterious components.

Initial stage data from this project will be presented at the 35th Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health International Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University in July 2019. Contact Dr Iain McLellan (iain.mclellan@uws.ac.uk) for further details.

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