Conversation with Dominique Hamerlijnck

This month we spoke to Dominique Hamerlijnck, a patient advocate and member of the ELF Asthma Patient Advisory Group (PAG). Here, she talks about the importance of clean air for lung health.

Tell us about yourself and your background

My name is Dominique Hamerlijnck and I live in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. I have severe asthma and am hypersensitive to air quality and pollutants in the air. I have been involved in many projects as a patient expert where I work to have the patient voice heard and get our perspective and needs included in developments. Working as a patient expert improves my quality of life. I learn new things every day.

Can you tell us how your health is impacted by air quality?

Air quality impacts my life every day. At the start of any day, I check the levels of pollution in order to set an expectation of what I might be able to do. However, this is often not stable: air quality changes during the day and unexpected things can happen. I can be OK one moment but then completely breathless 10 minutes later.

What adjustments do you need to make to daily life when air quality is poor?

When the air quality is very poor, I cannot leave my home. I spend my day breathing while sitting in a chair. Most other activities are too much for me. I need to take the absolute maximum of my medication just to get through the day. All my energy is spent on breathing.

What role do you think patients have to play in advocating for clean air? And can you tell us about your experience with this?

Most people seldom notice the quality of air. As people with lung conditions, we can make them aware of what it does to them. Many people with chronic diseases are affected by the quality of the air, though quite often they are not aware of it. They tell me: “Oh I had such a bad day yesterday. I have no idea why”. I tell them about the levels of air quality and the impact it has on all parts of the human body. Nobody has ever told them that the air they breathe every day has an impact on their health, daily activities and quality of life.

Most healthy people are not aware of the air quality and the possible risks for them. I see people running outside when it is code red for air quality. They have no idea of the impact on their life and health.

In my social circle, I am the poster girl for the impact of air quality. People see me completely breathless or unable to do anything. I tell them it is because of the quality of the air. It makes them aware that air quality has an impact on people, but it does not make them aware of what it can do to their lives.

Recent research has shown what an enormous impact air quality has on everyone. The pollutants don’t just stay in your lungs but get into every part of the body. These pollutants can lead to many diseases, including lung cancer, and even affect the development of babies before they are born.

Do you think it’s important for policymakers to set limits on harmful pollutants?

Yes. It is a necessity. The impact of air pollution is underestimated. It is just something they breathe in and out 22000 times a day. In Europe, 97% of the urban population is exposed to harmful levels of air pollution. This impacts everyone’s health and makes the health of people already struggling with (chronic) diseases worse. Many people die every year due to the air pollutant PM 2.5 – that is particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres in size. In 2020, an estimated 412000 deaths were attributed to PM 2.5. Not taking action against this unseen and under-recognised danger is bad for everyone. The World Health Organization (WHO) published a very clear report on air quality, making it clear that we need to take action now and everywhere; air does not recognise borders.

What are your hopes for the future regarding clean air in Europe?

I hope that the new EU Ambient Air Quality Directive is accepted soon and that the levels that the WHO proposed are accepted and will become the standard as soon as possible. It is in everyone’s interest, but especially for people who are already vulnerable. We need to be able to breathe air that does not negatively impact our lives with every breath.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We need more reliable information on air quality for everyone. There is some information on air quality, but it is not easily accessible or understandable. Not only that, we need better advice on what to do when air quality is bad. There should be a daily air quality report like the weather report. Citizens should have access to information and legal support to help them achieve clean air in their communities and have clarity on who can be held accountable for air quality.