How does air pollution and smog affect you while cycling?
When you start cycling you deliver a triple boost – to your health, your bank account and to the atmosphere, the latter simply by not adding to the air pollution around you! However, smog and cycling affects our health for worse.

Too many of us, after all, lead sedentary lives. At home we are couch potatoes, increasingly disinclined to even assume the vertical position. We don’t have to; we have all the remote controls and gadgets at our disposal to stay in contact with everyone. Then we compound it all by driving to work and using the lift – to climb two flights of stairs!


Get fitter

That’s why your decision to take up cycling was commendable. When you get on your bike you’re strengthening your leg muscles. It helps to keep you slim and your ticker in shape. Perhaps, also, many of your friends have taken up cycling? And you’re thinking of joining them on a biking holiday in France next year? At least there’ll be no air pollution there.

On a good day, you weave in and out of the traffic on your way to work, avoiding endless traffic jams. When it’s mild you enjoy being outdoors. You certainly don’t think of how smog affects you. It all seems so pleasant. If you live in Amsterdam, you enjoy skirting past the elegant canals; in Munich, you enjoy getting closer to the mountains; in Copenhagen, you like negotiating your way around the inner harbor. Only in deepest winter do you say a reluctant ‘au revoir’ to your bike and use public transport instead.


Join the growing club …

And cycling has been taking off over the past couple of decades. Holland is especially blessed, home as it is to virtual ‘cycling cities’ like Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Groningen. Utrecht, for example, boasts the longest bicycle lane in Holland – at 3.7 miles long (6 km) – and there are plans for more. More and more French cities are also shunning cars. France’s premier city for two-wheelers is still Strasbourg – the first to reach 16 per cent modal share for bicycle commuting – but Paris and Bordeaux are not far behind.

More and more women are now choosing to bike it. In Copenhagen, for example, women make up 55 per cent of cyclists. The congested streets of Manhattan, by contrast, hold only 20 per cent female riders. Perhaps that means women feel much safer in a Scandinavian city than in a North American one, or in London for that matter, where cycling also seems to be mainly the choice of sturdy young men. [1] Perhaps men are more inclined to accept air pollution and the way smog affects cycling.


And save money

Riding a bike is also great for your pocket. Public transport fares in major cities seem to be rising inexorably. Perhaps it’s overcrowding or the cost of ‘improvements’ being passed on to commuters, but it’s a huge monthly outlay. Travelling on the metro or bus is hardly comfortable.  Of course, if you were guaranteed a comfy seat for the duration of your journey it wouldn’t be so bad. Sadly, you usually end up standing, your nose pressed into someone else’s armpit.

In London, where overcrowding and exorbitant fares can make public transport intolerable, the number of cycling commuters more than doubled between 2001 and 2011, from 77 000 to 155 000.[2] You can take advantage of the ‘cycle to work scheme’ whereby you can snap up to 40 per cent in tax breaks when you buy a bike for work purposes. In the UK as a whole in 2014 (the most recent year recorded), a record 183,423 employees participated in this scheme.[3]

More and more cities are also promoting bicycle lanes. Some, like Copenhagen, have long since become predominantly biking cities. Now, 62 percent of residents in the Danish capital ride a bike daily to commute while only nine per cent drive. Copenhagen even offers a special bikers’ ferry to another biker-friendly city, the Swedish city of Malmo.[4]


And be a cool cat on two wheels

You are also ticking off your environmental credentials when you cycle to work. If everyone copied your example, then air pollution in cities wouldn’t be so bad. Trouble is, of course, they don’t. Or at least not in sufficient numbers. Too many people still love their car. That creates terrible air pollution for you. Unless you choose side streets, you end up being tailed by angry drivers and honking truckers on dirty main roads. And, unfortunately smog affects cycling more than anything else.

Because too many still prefer cars, the air pollution in the city is as bad as ever. To put it simply, the average biker is sucking in huge quantities of air per year . . . and it does indeed suck!! And cyclists fare worse because they breathe more heavily during exercise, usually through their mouths. So if you’re cycling hard then you are almost certainly inhaling more dangerous particles.


But remember to get a mask otherwise…

Cycling in the city will make you more prone to these particles. In London, for example, 9,500 people die every year due to long-term exposure to air pollution. Most deaths are due to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particles known as PM 2.5. You could, of course, try to shun heavy traffic and the worst air pollution.

“Changing the path cycle is the most effective change to make,”[5]

says Dr Cathryn Tonne, lecturer in environmental epidemiology. Yet many cyclists are simply unable to deviate to less polluted routes, preferring to get to work as fast as possible.

Perhaps you hadn’t really bargained for the urban air pollution and the way that smog affects you. You are, of course, aware of other risks. You probably wear a helmet – naturally – after you were almost knocked off your bike at that busy intersection by an ‘unsighted’ driver at dusk. That incident probably prompted you to also don a high visibility jacket. Yet perhaps you still don’t realise that smog presents the greatest danger to your health. If you continue inhaling these dangerous particles then, gradually, you will notice unsettling symptoms: a sore throat, coughing, chest pain, watery eyes, and headaches.


No wonder the British Lung Foundation advises:

“If you have to be exposed to traffic fumes, e.g. if you’re a cyclist or courier, then wear a mask.” 

But what type of mask is best …? Fortunately, AirLief has perfected a user-friendly mask that not only filters pollutant particles but also provides an app for your smart phone. In this way, you will be able to keep abreast of pollution levels and receive a reminder when the filter on your mask has to be changed.

In the next article, we’ll explain more about the mask’s benefits and also offer more tips on how cyclists can minimise the harmful effects of air pollution.



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Find out our solutions for protection against air pollution

Written By airlief

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