SPIKES in air pollution in Tayside were clearly linked to a "large increase" hospital admissions and GP visits over a 15 year period, according to the first study of its kind in Scotland.

Researchers compared data for air pollution levels in Dundee, Perth and the surrounding area against the medical records of 450 patients with bronchiectasis, a long-term chronic lung condition.

Professor James Chalmers, who led the study at Dundee University, said they found an "absolutely clear" link between patterns of pollution and an increase in these patients seeking medical attention.

Prof Chalmers, an expert in respiratory research, said: “We found that on days when air pollution spiked there was a large increase in admissions to Ninewells Hospital and Perth Royal Infirmary with breathing problems and visits to GP's with breathing problems, known as exacerbations."

The analysis is possible for the Tayside region due to detailed electronic health records going back many years, but Prof Chalmers said there was "every reason to believe these results would be replicated elsewhere".

The problem was particularly acute in areas where heavy traffic contributed to higher concentrations of nitrogen oxides and particulates in the air.

The latest air quality monitoring data for Scotland identified Hope Street in Glasgow as the most polluted street in Scotland, with nitrogen dioxide levels 45 per cent higher that the legal limit.

Glasgow City Council has been criticised by environmental campaigners over the slow roll-out of its Low Emission Zone - the first in Scotland. Although there will be phased restrictions on buses, it will be December 2022 before all vehicles below Euro VI - the cleanest grade of engine - are banned from the city centre.

Prof Chalmers said that the study underlined the need to tackle air pollution as a public health issue, and stressed that patients with breathing problems were "the canary in the coalmine" for the wider population.

He said: “Our data suggests that a failure to tackle air pollution is having a major impact on the health of people with lung conditions and potentially the wider Tayside population. The patients we looked at, who all suffer from lung conditions, are to my mind the canary in the coalmine on this issue – they are the first and most seriously affected by air pollution but it can affect us all."

He added: "What is worrying is that after big improvements in air quality in the 1990s and 2000s, progress has slowed in the past 10 years and many parts of Scotland are still regularly exceeding EU and Scottish limits for safe levels of air pollution.

“At a time when the NHS is under increasing strain, we should be looking at effective ways of preventing illness. Our data shows that a fairly modest reduction in air pollution [of 10 micrograms of coarse particulates per cubic metre] would have prevented nearly 1000 hospital admissions and GP visits during the study period.”

Ian Jarrold, Head of Research at the British Lung Foundation, said, “It is well-known that people with lung conditions are the first to become breathless when exposed to air pollution.

"But, 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."

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.