Air pollution has been clearly linked to spikes in breathing problem-related admissions to hospitals and visits to GPs in a research project conducted at the University of Dundee.

Researchers studied nearly 15 years of data for air pollution levels in Dundee, Perth and the surrounding area and matched it to medical records of 450 patients who suffer from bronchiectasis, a long-term chronic condition similar to COPD which can cause a persistent cough and breathlessness as well as frequent chest infections.

They discovered that many had sought medical help on the days when pollution levels spiked.

Professor James Chalmers, GSK/British Lung Foundation Professor of Respiratory Research in the School of Medicine at Dundee, who helped lead the study, said that during period of high pollution there were large increases in admissions to Ninewells Hospital and Perth Royal Infirmary for those with breathing problems, which was also witnessed at GP surgeries.

He added: “We also found that the impact of air pollution was worst in the summer, where hot and less windy days raise the levels of air pollution. It is also when people are outside more and are being exposed to pollution, and we ultimately see more people having to attend hospital or see a doctor.”

Professor Chalmers explained it was the sophisticated medical record keeping in Tayside that provided key data for the study.

“It is only in Tayside we can get such a detailed look at the data because of the sophistication of the electronic health records that have been well established for many years,” he said.

“This is the first study in Scotland where we been able to look in detail at the relationship between medical data and air pollution data, but evidence from other countries has also suggested similar links. There is every reason to believe these results would be replicated elsewhere.”

Professor Chalmers said the problem was particularly acute in those areas where heavy traffic contributed to poor air quality.

Ian Jarrold, head of research at the British Lung Foundation, acknowledged that it was well-known that people with lung conditions were the first to become breathless when exposed to air pollution.

He added: “Thanks to this study, we now know that there is a clear link between high levels of air pollution and increased numbers of patients with breathing problems at hospitals and GP surgeries.

“The additional costs faced by the NHS in treating patients with lung conditions due to high exposure to air pollution can no longer be ignored.”

He called for tough measures to be introduced to cut vehicle emissions in towns and cities across the UK.

The Scottish government has committed to phasing out petrol and diesel cars. Ministers have also committed to introducing low emission zones into Scotland’s biggest cities by 2020.

The study was a collaboration between the research team at the University of Dundee and environmental health experts from Belgium. The study was funded by the British Lung Foundation and is published in the European Respiratory Journal.