Pollution link to surge in breathing problems

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 March, 2006, 12:00am

Experts call for total smoking ban and action on emissions after six-fold rise in elderly with respiratory complaints

The number of elderly people complaining of respiratory problems has risen six-fold in 12 years, a survey has found, with experts saying pollution is a significant factor contributing to the rise.

A team of respiratory experts has urged the government to quickly implement a total smoking ban in Hong Kong to improve air quality. They also blamed emissions from vehicles and power plants as well as pollutants from the Pearl River Delta for the deteriorating respiratory condition of people in the city.

The comparative survey, carried out by Chinese University and the Hong Kong Lung Foundation, indicated that 30 per cent of elderly people over the age of 70 in 2003 complained about breathing problems, wheezing and coughing when they were exposed to irritants - compared with only 4.9 per cent in 1991.

Sensitivity to irritants, including perfume, showed the respiratory function of the elderly was deteriorating because of prolonged exposure to pollution, said Fanny Ko Wai-san, a specialist in respiratory medicine at Chinese University.

Complaints by elderly people about breathing problems during the night or when they were at rest were 7.2 per cent and 12.3 per cent, respectively, in 2003 - double the rate of 3.6 per cent and 5.2 per cent 12 years ago.

Those with tightness of the chest in the morning doubled from 4.2 per cent in 1991 to 8.8 per cent in 2003.

The study involved 1,524 elderly people in 2003 and 2,042 in 1991.

Dr Ko believed that air quality had played a significant role in the deterioration of respiratory health among elderly people in Hong Kong.

'The subjects in the study were people who have lived in this city their whole life. So we would not consider any significant genetic differences between them. We believe that environmental factors play a more significant role in deteriorating their respiratory problems,' he said.

In a separate study carried out by a team from the University of Hong Kong's division of respiratory and critical-care medicine, 3.9 per cent of non-smokers over the age of 18 suffered from airflow obstruction, a symptom of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other respiratory problems, including asthma.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was the fifth leading cause of death in Hong Kong in 2003, said HKU professor Mary Ip Sau-man, who was co-ordinator of the team, which included two medical schools and six public hospitals.

The study, carried out between 2001 and 2003, involved 616 smokers and 1,089 non-smokers.

Professor Ip estimated that a total of 110,000 smokers over the age of 40 suffered from airflow obstruction based on the findings, which showed that one-quarter of smokers from this age group had the symptoms.