London’s dirty air caused my lung to collapse and almost killed me

It’s hard to understand exactly how deadly something invisible can be, but I know it first hand.

Back in 2014, I had 14 life-threatening asthma attacks over the course of a year, each caused by air pollution. I worked as a hairdresser in central London and loved city life, but the condition of the air had a terrible impact on my health.

I was diagnosed with asthma as a toddler and in my early years I was constantly in and out of the hospital. Mom and Dad, who live in central London, worried that the fumes of the capital made my condition worse, so we moved to Canvey Island, Essex, when I was eight.

Breathing in the clean sea air really helped, even though I still had asthma attacks two or three times a year while growing up, and the strange stay in the hospital.

Everything could trigger my asthma from dogs, cats and dust to pollen, cold air and pollution. But then I came back quickly and it only took me a day or two to recover after each attack

But things really took a turn for the worse when I moved back to London in 2014 as a 25-year-old to be with my partner Phil, who works with fire safety. After 13 years out of town, I had hoped my asthma had calmed down and did not think the pollution would affect me anymore.

But it only took a few weeks for me to discover that I was wrong. I had an asthma attack at least once every fortnight and would end up in the hospital. I was careful never to go anywhere without my two inhalers – a prevention to keep inflammation down and a relief to help me breathe when I was wheezing and short of breath.

Then, in December 2015, after 11 months in London, I had such an awful asthma attack that I was taken to the hospital, where I was told that my left lung had collapsed and that I had to spend five days on oxygen to repair themselves.

It was a turning point for me as I know I could be dead. Phil and I agreed that we should move when living in London put my life on the line.

After spending the best part of a year on steroids to open my airways and being told by my consultant that London air made my asthma worse, I could not continue to risk my life.

So Phil and I moved to Brentwood Essex, and over the next few years, my asthma improved. I went back to having two or three severe seizures a year. We now live in Romford and my asthma is still relatively stable.

Kelly May

I was told that my left lung had collapsed and that I would have to spend five days on oxygen in order for it to repair itself (Photo: Kelly May)

But the sad truth is that there is no escape from air pollution unless the government immediately takes bold measures now. Although my health has improved in Essex, my asthma flares up every time I go to London. Now that more people are returning to the workplace and the world is returning to a kind of normal, with more traffic on the roads, I’m afraid it’s getting worse.

But I can not live my life in a bubble. And we can not keep hearing stories about people like Ella Kissi-Debrah, the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.

We can not keep seeing cases like mine, of people struggling to breathe and being in and out of the hospital due to dirty fumes. It’s not just me I’m worried about: My niece and nephew also have asthma, and I find it shocking how many children now seem to need inhalers. Previous research from Asthma UK showed that an estimated half a million children in the UK with asthma experience that their symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath are triggered by air pollution.

Every year, air pollution is linked to up to 36,000 premature deaths in the UK. High air pollution can be a fatal trigger for people with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

According to Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, 88% of people with a lung disease report that air pollution affects their health and well-being. It also reduces life expectancy, increases the chances of lung cancer and inhibits lung growth in children.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we need to take care of our lungs, and it starts with the air we breathe.

I am determined to share my story to shed light on exactly how harmful air pollution can be, which is why I support Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation in their mission to improve air quality so that people can access clean air, no matter where they live.

No one should suffer just because the air where they live is unsafe.

This is a health emergency and the government has an urgent need to introduce more courageous laws on clean air so that everyone can live fully free of toxic air.

Kelly May shares her story in support of the Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation’s Clear the air ‘campaign and calls on the government to reduce air pollution and introduce new clean air laws. Find out more and share your story here to claim changes from the UK government:

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