Polluted Cities Like London Choke Pedal-Powered Residents With Dirty Nanoparticles

Graffiti of Cyclists With Gas Masks photo

Photo by invisibleconsequential via flickr.

Air quality is not something we tend to complain about - a rain shower or snow flurries can stop cyclists in their tracks, but gradually worsening air doesn't make our daily talking points. Perhaps it should - we are a bit like frogs in the hot pot, not realizing the danger until we're dead. A new UK study reported in the Times shows cyclists can be among the most vulnerable to dirty, particulate-rich city air, inhaling five times moe toxic nanoparticulates than pedestrians or car drivers.The study, led by Luc Int Panis of the transport research institute at Hasselt University in Belgium, had participants fit a breathing device over their mouths while riding through the cities of Brussels as well as the smaller nearby Mol.

In Brussels cyclists inhaled 5.58 million nanoparticles for every meter cycled. In Mol, just 1.1 million nonparticles were inhaled by study participants. The study found cyclists inhaled four to five times more particles than a car passenger driven along the same route. Cyclists are more at risk than car passengers not only because they are in the open air but also because exertion makes them breathe both harder and faster.

Another study soon to be released by the journal Epidemiology shows that these nanoparticles may contribute to a higher risk of heart disease and more risk of asthma attacks.

Anne Lusk, cycling advocate and researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, said Int Panis' study is troubling, but still must be weighed against the benefits to cycling.

"It is far better to have this information than proceed as if pollution doesn't matter," Lusk said. She said that Int Panis himself in his scholarly articles continues to highlight cycling's benefits.

For Lusk, the results of the study just demonstrate the need to change policies in order to get cleaner city air. In an email to TreeHugger, she recommended the following:

"1) Continue to encourage people to bicycle because the outcome is healthier than if they sit in a car. People don't have to bicycle in polluted routes for 2 hours each day whereas they often sit in cars in polluted sections for that amount of time (though the ventilation rate of a car sitter is much lower than a bicyclist).

2) Encourage people to choose routes that are away from the heavy arterials or downtown roads that have 4 to 6 lanes of traffic and multiple buses, trucks, and stopped cars. Parallel routes for bicycling, such as designated bike boulevards, are better than heavily congested roads, especially if on the other side of tall downtown office buildings (see S. Kaur's research on street canyons in London 2005 and Amy Thai Particulate matter exposure along designated bicycle routes in Vancouver - 2008).

3) Create cycle tracks that allow the bicyclists to not bicycle directly behind the buses and trucks, ideally with a buffer (trees, parallel parked cars) between the buses/cars/trucks and the bicyclists on the cycle track.

4) Encourage cities to start adopting policies to reward the purchase and driving of non-polluting cars, trucks, and buses, especially in city centers. This could be a form of the zone in inner city London in which cars have heavy fees for diving in those area. In this case, the cars could have a code that can be read (numbers read by camera, responder as in toll booths, etc.) that more heavily taxes a "rig" that pollutes and doesn't tax a "rig" that is non- polluting.

Lusk says she is working on researching if the effects hold true for her city of Boston. Meanwhile, today the EU issues a "final" warning to Britain warning it to clean up polluted cities, specifically London, or face fines.

Read more about cycling and pollution at TreeHugger:
How Does Pollution Affect Cyclists?
Urban Cyclists: Stick Together, Don't Inhale?'
Tel Aviv Cyclists Out in "Thongs" To Protest Lack of Bike Legislation

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