All of us think that riding a bicycle is safe, green and good for our health. However, is that actually true? Indeed, it is green in terms of not creating any pollution and it having zero carbon emissions. However, it is neither safe, nor good for our health. Air pollution that cyclists are exposed to is being investigated in great detail and the results are quite frightening.
It’s not All Bad
Let’s start with a little bit of good news. Research has shown that all those who participate in traffic are exposed to air pollution and that those who have the lowest risk are actually the cyclists, at least when compared to those driving a car. This is due to two reasons:
• The tunnel effect – vehicles staying inside a single polluted corridor
• Exhaust fumes leaking into cars
This advantage stays in place even when we consider a cyclist has to breathe twice as hard as a driver. Furthermore, cyclists tend to have a stronger immune system, which helps them fight any damage. However, cyclists should still do all they can to avoid the polluted air, for instance by traveling on alternative roads during peak hours.
The Truth of the Matter
Our health is at significant risk due to pollution. Many people who have always commuted by using their bicycle, believing they are perfectly healthy, have regularly developed breathing problems such as Sarcoidosis, scarring the lungs and reducing breathing capacity by as much as 75%. The link between respiratory disease and air pollution has been proven and it is accepted that they worsen existing tendencies, as well as causing new problems.
How to Deal with Pollution
There are a number of techniques that can protect you, as a cyclist, from the worst pollution. Remember that the highest densities of vehicle pollution are in areas with high density of traffic, such as city centers, so avoid those whenever possible. Other tips include:
• Get a more elevated bike, so you are above the polluting cloud
• Avoid areas of traffic build up
• Avoid peak hours
• When in front of a traffic light, position yourself in front of vehicles
• Stay away from exhausts
• Never stop, unless faced with a red light or a traffic situation in which you have to give way
Should We Quite Riding?
You now probably have an image of riding into a black cloud of diesel and other pollutants, having heart attacks and asthma and are veering towards believing cyclists are actually causing themselves more problems that they resolve. However, this is not the case – not yet, anyway. It is about following the tips above to make sure you keep yourself out of harm’s way as much as possible. Overall, as you have seen at the beginning of this text, cyclists are still less exposed to pollution than motorists, so the situation isn’t dire at present.
A Few Things to Know
Here are a few things you need to know to keep yourself as safe – and clean – as possible:
• It only takes 50 meters for air pollutants to halve.
• Heart Foundations across the world agree that cycling is still better than driving.
• Driving is unhealthy no matter how you look at it.
What Is in Polluted Air?
A lot of people wonder just what they actually inhale. Here is the low-down, but beware that it does not paint a pretty picture:
• Ozone, an unstable and toxic gas. Also known as smog. Can cause shortness of breath (best case) or lung damage (worse case).
• Nitrogen oxides, responsible for creating smog. Impairs lung function, makes breathing difficult and irritates your respiratory system.
• Carbon monoxide, known as the silent killer as it has neither smell nor taste. This is what is emitted when fuels are not completely combusted. Can lead to memory problems, headaches and, in the worst case, death.
• PM10s, which are tiny, solid pieces of smoke that you can taste and smell. They are a nuisance but can be particularly problematic for asthmatics, potentially being fatal.
• Sulphur dioxide, which smells but has no colour. It comes from fuel combustion, particularly coal. It can irritate the sinuses, increase cases of pneumonia and bronchitis and can lead to lung cancer.
A Few Tips to Prevent Serious Problems
If you are planning to set off on your bike, check your national Air Quality Website. This will tell you whether it is safe to go out and which roads you should avoid. Use cycle paths wherever possible and try not to get stuck behind any vehicles, moving to the front of the queue wherever possible. Ensure you have a healthy diet with plenty of vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin C and E. C creates glutathione, preventing free radicals, which is something E does as well.
Cover Up with a Mask
The only real weapon you have to protect yourself is a mask. You can create one yourself with a scarf, or you can purchase a wraparound bandana, purpose built for cyclists. These have been researched and have been proven to have a highly effective seal. They also include a filter, which will take out some of the noxious gases and the PM10s at the very least. Do make sure you purchase a good mask, which has been endorsed by your national health authority. Even the manufacturers of these masks warn that they are not full proof, however, and that you should aim to breathe shallowly or even hold your breath when stuck in stationary traffic.