Do we read too much into 'ill' hotspots?


Rhian Waller

A new health resource is available to the public and it does not paint a rosy picture for parts of North Wales and Cheshire.

The Environmental Health Atlas allows site visitors to zoom into specific geographic areas, breaking counties like Flintshire and Wrexham down into wards.

People can then select one of several health issues – including lung cancer and coronary disease – and check on the prevalence in the area by gender.

Parts of Flintshire, according to the atlas, have one of the highest risk factors for lung cancer for women in the country, with Mostyn, Greenfield and Holywell East being in the second highest risk bracket on the register.

Women are up to 50 per cent more likely to contract it there than in the east of Mold.

Plas Madoc, in Wrexham county, is in the highest risk bracket for female lung cancer, unlike Johnstown, where residents are five to 10 per cent less likely to develop the condition than the national average.

The Bryn Cefn ward in Wrexham is also in the highest risk bracket for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in men, in contrast to Acton, which has a lower-than-average risk factor.

North-Eastern wards of Chester and Flintshire also rate high in the risk brackets for liver cancer.

The map shows environmental factors which might impact on health – like sunshine, herbicide use and air pollution – but this does not always mean a direct link to illness levels according to the experts who drew it up.

According to the UK Small Area Health Statistics Unit: “Similar geographic patterns of environmental agents and health conditions does not mean the association is causal.

“The health condition maps show average long-term risks for an area.

“Each individual living in that area will have different risk factors such as genetic factors, age, whether they smoke or not, diet and exercise patterns and other medical conditions that may have important influences on their individual risk.”

Dr Peter Saul, of the Beech Avenue Practice in Rhos, Wrexham, said the information was “very interesting”.

He said: “I think what we need to take from this is that while there are some things we can't guard ourselves against on a personal level, like air pollution - and we do seem to rate slightly higher in Wrexham and Flintshire for that - there are things we can do to live healthier.

“COPD is a problem in the area, but I wouldn’t put that all down to air pollution.

“I’d say the main reason for that is that people smoke too much. Smoking has been linked to lung conditions and I suspect there is a higher-than-average number of smokers here because smoking is also linked to deprivation.

“Affluent people are less likely to smoke, but we have areas of deprivation where people are likely to smoke more and start earlier.

“People in poorer areas are also likely to have worse housing and diets.”

This hints at the complex nature of the health map and health in general.

While it provides a snapshot of our local wellbeing (the data fed into the COPD map runs from 1984 to 2009), many variables like wealth, lifestyle and other environmental factors such as radon and pesticides are not included.

Dr Saul said: “This map does provide a useful tool and I would encourage people to look at it.

“As a health professional, it will encourage us to be on the lookout for conditions that are common to a certain area so we can diagnose them faster.

“As a member of the public, you can look at the map and look around you to see what's likely to affect you in the area and adjust your lifestyle accordingly.

“But we are talking about probability here, so people shouldn’t get complacent if they live in an area where they are less likely to develop an illness. One way of thinking about it is like racing odds. You have the odds-on favourite, but there’s nothing to stop an outsider coming out ahead.”

Jenny Jones, 62, of Northop Hall, lives in an area where residents are at 20 per cent higher risk of developing COPD than the national average.

She has no doubts about what caused her own illness.

She said: “It was smoking. I’ve smoked since I was a child, basically.

“Ironically, it was only diagnosed when I stopped.

“It was six years ago and I was a bit annoyed that I was feeling breathless, so I went to the doctor and he told me I had COPD.

“At the moment I’m considered a moderate sufferer. It doesn’t have that much impact on my life. I can walk and move around, but I get breathless whenever I lift anything, so picking up shopping or turning a mattress takes it out of me.”

Jenny is equally as certain about her future.

She said: “The illness is progressive and it will get worse. I’m trying to keep healthy. I have a dog called Beama, and he keeps me walking.

“I’d definitely encourage people to quit smoking – whether they are already ill or not. The doctors told me because I stopped when I did it has slowed the process of the illness by 10 years.”

The Flint Trelawny area, Buckley West and Mold South also appear on the map as higher-risk regions for coronary disease, as does Bryn Cefn in Wrexham and Upton in Chester.

Maureen Talbot, a British Heart Foundation Heart Nurse, who takes calls from across the UK, including North Wales and Cheshire, had some advice.

She said: “Coronary heart disease is a largely preventable condition and people can reduce their risk of developing it by stopping or not starting smoking, keeping their weight down, eating a healthy diet and being physically active.

“There are some risk factors that can’t be changed such as age, gender, ethnicity and a strong family history of the condition.

“We know the environment can have an effect on those who already have a heart condition especially on days when pollution levels are high so it is important to be aware of levels and take precautions.

“If people have specific concerns though, they can have a chat with their GP.”

To have a look at health and the environment in your area, visit www.envhealth

See full story in the Leader

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