Riders on the Smog

| 9/26/2011 4:48:37 PM


“If you bike to work, you’ve probably got pretty nice thighs,” imagines The Atlantic Cities’ Nate Berg. “Your lungs, though, may not be in such great shape.”

Berg is referring to the results of a small-scale study released over the weekend that suggest urban cyclists are at increased risk from air pollution, specifically the black carbon present in automobile emissions. As Environmental News Network warns, “A wide range of health effects are associated with black carbon and include heart attacks and reduced lung function because it lines and constricts the airways.” As usual, just when you thought you had a healthy thing going, the medical research community has to go and suck the air out of it.

The Gothamist summarizes the testing process:

Researchers collected sputum samples from five adults who regularly cycled to work in London and five pedestrians, and analyzed the amount of black carbon found in their airway macrophages. According to a press release, all participants in the study were non-smoking healthy urban commuters aged between 18 and 40 yrs, and the probability that this difference occurred by chance is less than 1 in 100.

So why does it matter? Regular exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle, and one study has found that biking on a more consistent basis can extend your life 3-14 months. It’d be unfortunate if those 14 months were offset by the latent effects of air pollution, or, if without that daily dose of smog, regular cycling could extend one’s life 6-28 months.

Don’t count on amped up regulation, even in the most progressive, bike-friendly cities. (Just think of the heyday that libertarians would have . . .) For now the best advice may be: If you can’t beat the smog, ride around it. “Our data strongly suggest that personal exposure to black carbon should be considered when planning cycling routes,” says study researcher and dedicated cyclist Dr. Chinedu Nwokoro (as quoted in the study’s press release). When commuting, try to take off-street bike paths and low-traffic routes where available—which isn’t a bad idea anyway.

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