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Celebrating a humble, common weed / How road traffic pollution affects lung development in children / Control of substances of a

Celebrating a humble, common weed

DandelionCuriously enough, our familiar dandelion does not occur in the southern hemisphere, although it is widespread everywhere in the north temperate zone. It is found so plentifully in pastures, in meadows and on waste ground that it is generally looked upon rather as a menace rather than an asset.

Its yellow flowers are conspicuous at this time of the year, but it blooms, and distributes its seeds on the wind, throughout most seasons.

The name dandelion is derived from the Old French dent-de-lion, meaning lion’s tooth. The name is said to refer to the shape of the leaves, although there remains some doubt about its origin. It is said that a surgeon, Wilhelmus, first used this name in the 14th century and it is true that in the ancient herbals the illustrations suggest the arrangement seen in the lion’s jaw.

During recent centuries the plant has enjoyed wide use in many aspects of civilised life. In Victorian times it was deliberately grown as a salad plant and a source for wine, while the roots were roasted and ground to make a substitute for coffee. The young leaves are eaten in salads or put into sandwiches and they are rich in potassium and some vitamins.

The folklore attached to the dandelion is extensive. Its diuretic effect is well known. and was even reputed to be invoked by merely picking flowers from the field. This effect has given rise to a host of synonyms for the plant, such as “pissabeds”. In modern France the plant is called pissenlit (“urinate in bed”).

Tea made from dandelion leaves was regarded as a general tonic, and a cure for indigestion and kidney troubles. The milky juice has been applied to warts, to make them blacken and drop off. The juice would also relieve a nettle sting.

Poultry-keepers have placed value on dandelion plants as food for young turkeys and the leaves were fed to tame rabbits. Pigs and goats are fond of them, but cattle and horses do not enjoy them, it appears.

Meanwhile, dandelions are not the gardener’s friends, since they are difficult to eradicate once they have taken hold of a plot. And gardeners probably do not appreciate the way children help to disperse the seed-carrying achenes through the tradition of blowing dandelion clocks apart to find the time.

How road traffic pollution affects lung development in children

In the 17 February issue of The Lancet is a commentary on a paper from the Netherlands regarding an adverse effect of air pollution on respiration and lung development in children. It is well established that having to breathe traffic-polluted air causes unfavourable immediate reactions in patients suffering from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung conditions, but also cardiovascular complications such as myocardial infarction and stroke. The situation has been associated with both increased morbidity and increased mortality.

Particulate matter is the component most strongly related with health effects.Particles smaller than 2.5µ include those most unfavourable to respiration.In urban areas this fraction is commonly linked to processes involving combustion — inevitably,therefore, the neighbourhood of road traffic is a major source in daily living.

There is evidence that living close to motorways in California leads to reducedlung development in children. A study of more than 3,600 children from the agesof 10 to 18 years involving yearly measurements of lung function showed thatthose living less than 500m from a motorway had reduced growth of lung functioncompared with others living more than 1,500m away. Thus, within certain communities,some children are more at risk than others because of the air they have to breathe.The effect is local rather than regional.

Other studies have indicated that children from poor families, who are more likelyto attend schools near busy motorways than others who are more affluent, maybe at greater risk. Figures indicating poor development of lung function in children,although seen in such children, do not necessarily relate to air quality in theentire region.

Diesel emissions containing large quantities of nanoparticles with organic surfacehydrocarbons have extensive inflammatory effects on the bronchial wall, and thismay go a long way to explain the adverse effects of living near a busy motorway.

Control of substances of abuse should focus on potential for harm

The way in which the UK authorities attempt to control drugs of misuse through the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 has been subject to criticism lately.

A report published in the BMJ for 10 March suggests that the use of illegal drugsshould be managed primarily as a social issue rather than a criminal offencesubject to a legal distinction. The aim of the public policy should be to reducethe harm that results from substance abuse. The distinction between those substancesthat are usually called “drugs” and the commonly met tobacco andalcohol is in any event an artificial one and not to be emphasised. Materialsused as solvents, which are available on the open market, should also be classedotherwise than as drugs, but subjected to the same criticisms.

The report calls for a new Misuse of Substances Act setting drugs in the wider context of substances liable to misuse, with punishments for their abuse being based on harmful behaviour resulting from mishandling ofthe substances rather than merely on possessing them.

In The Lancet for 14 March, experts from Bristol and Oxford universities andfrom the Forensic Science Service and the Police Foundation in London criticisethe Act’s system of allocating drugs of misuse to one of three categories.They have developed a nine-category matrix of harm to assess the harm of a rangeof illicit substances in an evidence-based fashion, based on the substances’ physicalhealth effects, potential for dependence and social harm. As well as illicitdrugs, their study included five legal drugs of misuse — alcohol, tobacco,solvents, alkyl nitrites and khat. The assessment process resulted in similarscores and ranking of drug harm when used by different groups of experts. Butthe rankings showed little correlation with classification under the Misuse ofDrugs Act.

There is a need to find better ways of reducing the demand for all psychoactivesubstances. For those who become dependent upon such drugs a more humane andeffective response is called for, not a punitive one.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10003695

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