Cycling, pollution and London – what you need to know

London’s poor air quality has been in the headlines and, as a cyclist, this invisible danger is a major concern.

According to figures from Kings College London, by January 5th of this year, Brixton had already exceeded the annual EU permitted nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels. This is primarily caused by diesel cars, which contribute 90-95% of NO2 emissions.

The Royal College of Physicians published a report suggesting that it costs the UK more than £20 billion a year to deal with the effects of pollution. Polluted air has been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and dementia.

The Mayor of London has pledged to do more. From the 23rd of October of this year, they’ll be a new £10 daily T-Charge (Toxicity Charge) in central London for vehicles that fail to meet the minimum exhaust emission standards. This is in addition to the Congestion Charge.

From the 8th of April 2019, this will be replaced by the new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) charge which will be in place in central London. By 2020, there are plans to expand this across Greater London and by 2021 to North and South Circular roads.

Whilst it’s great to see the Mayor taking this seriously, it’s unfortunate the roll out couldn’t be sooner and that support from central government is limited.

How clean is the air along your route?

The easiest way to visualise your route is via the LondonAir website by Kings College London. In particular, it’s useful to take a look at the historic map. For your iPhone or Android, LondonAir also has an app.

There is also the £49 CleanSpace Tag. The device monitors your personal exposure to CO2, which gives an indication of the air quality.

Is this a particular issue for cyclists?

As cyclists, whilst exercising we end up sucking in more air, which means there’s a greater chance for harmful particles being absorbed. In addition, through exertion, we end up breathing through the mouth. Therefore, we are bypassing our body’s air-filtering system: our nasal passages.

Our bodies end up defending themselves by breathing less. You feel your air passages tighten and breathing becomes hard work. The symptoms you may feel are wheezing, coughing, headache, chest pain, watery eyes and a scratchy throat. However, often many people don’t feel these symptoms, which gives a false sense of security.

It’s not much better for drivers or tube passengers. In fact, according to some reports that measure NO2 exposure, being a driver is worse than being a cyclist. For drivers, the air comes in through the vents and gaps and stays in the vehicle. Cyclists are at least able to filter to the front of traffic, avoiding staying behind a vehicle exhaust.

What can you do to protect yourself?

  1. Air quality can vary dramatically from day to day, often depending on weather conditions. That’s why summer is often a bad time of the year for pollution, as sunlight reacts with emissions. Windy days often mean cleaner air.  The best places to check include LondonAir and DEFRA.
  2. To plot an alternative route, away from main roads, the CycleStreets website and app is a popular solution. The Bike Hub iPhone app (also available on Android) does an excellent job and uses the same routes as CycleStreets. The QuadLock is an excellent, if expensive, solution to having your phone on your handlebars to follow directions. As a general rule, every 50 metres you move away from a main road, you halve the harmful pollution.
  3. Aim to get in front of vehicles at traffic lights. The worst pollutants come directly out of vehicle exhausts and will linger in traffic jams.
  4. Incorporating bell peppers, kiwi, broccoli, berries, tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables that are high in Vitamin C is helpful. These help prevent free-radical damage to the lungs. Vitamin E is also helpful.
  5. In your home, an areca palm which costs around £15 helps remove air toxins. The plant requires minimum care and thrives indoors.
  6. We’ve looked at cycling masks previously. According to a joint Sustrans and British Lung Foundation study these can help but they need to be air tight and they need to have filters. The model recommended is the Respro. As this wraps around the face, it provides an effective seal and has a machine-washable charcoal filter which can filter PM10s.

The benefits of cycling outweigh the risks

According to a study published in the journal of Preventive Medicine by scientists in Brazil, Spain, and Switzerland, and the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Imperial College London, the benefits of cycling, outweigh the risks.

From a personal perspective, the physical and mental wellbeing gained from cycling is not something I’d want to compromise. However, I also don’t want to bury my head in the sand and hope it goes away. I’ll continue to write, call and canvas my MP in any way I can. I’ll also continue to take precautionary steps, such as avoiding congested roads.

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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

5 Responses to Cycling, pollution and London – what you need to know

  1. AndyZE 17/04/2017 at 11:17 am #

    Great article – really interesting. I used to live just south of London and it was the pollution that did it for me in the end. The effects of the heat and pollution on my asthma was making life really miserable. I did little cycling in those days; I was adding to the problem with my 30,000 miles a year in my company car on top of mileage in private vehicles. Rents were rising but my pay wasn’t, and I could see that it wouldn’t be long until I was working just to keep my landlord in a style to which he had become accustomed.

    One day I decided to stop talking about doing something and start doing it. I sold up everything I owned until I was left with a suitcase and a day pack full of what I couldn’t bear to lose, and with £5,500 in my pocket and hope in my heart I headed off to Shetland, booked myself into a B&B for a week, found a flat to rent and looked for a job. As a new and unknown entity it was difficult to get a job, but after 6 months and some MS Office trainiing I found myself with an employer, who I am still with now, although I have been through many different jobs here, 14 years later.

    Here we have fresh air in abundance, normally travelling quickly, 12-18mph is the usual. It’s not brilliant for cycling due to the wind, unless it is behind you of course, but it does keep you fit. The winter nights are long and dark, but made up for the long days of “summer”. Don’t expect high temperatures here. I have never known it to go above 21 degrees C in the time I have been here. Don’t expect MacDonalds, Burger King, KFC et al. The only high street stores here are Tesco, Co-op, Boots and McKays. The rest are independents. What we do have is plenty of swimming pools and sports centres, paid for out of the oil money, and roads that are really well looked after. It’s a long and expensive trip to the UK mainland, up to 12 hours on the ferry to Aberdeen or an hour on a flight. You won’t have loads of theatres to choose from, but you won’t be spending your life rushing around or stuck in traffic helping the government meet air quality legislation by filtering pollution through your lungs for those that refuse to give up their cars. A traffic jam here is 15 cars at one of our few roundabouts.

    Don’t be worrying about your health and pollution though, think of the money that you are earning, the facilities that are available to you, those huge shopping centres. Doing something about improving your life is really difficult. It’s so much easier to sit back and just talk about it rather than taking a risk, upping sticks and moving to somewhere with a decent quality and pace to life. Who wants to sit there listening to the radio when the headline is a stolen mobile phone or stolen pushbike. Those things don’t even rate a mention where you are from they are so common.

    Anyway, I must away. There is talk on the grapevine that orcas have been spotted off the coast so I will go and stand on the shore with the binos and see if I can spot them. If not the chances are that there will be dozens of seals sunbathing on the rocks just over the sea wall next to Tesco. They are always interesting to watch. In fact the last time I was on my way to Tesco an otter ran across the road in front of me with a fish in between its jaws.

    • Andreas 17/04/2017 at 12:05 pm #

      Thank you so much AndyZE for writing in with your experience! Wonderful to read about this complete change in lifestyle.

  2. Andreas 17/04/2017 at 12:05 pm #

    Also relevant to the article:
    “The effect on wellbeing of exposure to nitrogen dioxide, a gas mostly produced in diesel fumes, is comparable to the toll from losing a job, ending a relationship or the death of a partner, research suggests.”

  3. Dave Castle 19/04/2017 at 7:29 pm #

    Good article Andreas, but I find the quote “primarily caused by diesel cars, which contribute 90-95% of NO2 emissions” hard to believe. Just cars? what about the numerous buses and lorries that ply Londons roads, surely they are responsible for far more than just 5%. May be it should read “Diesel Engines” or “Diesel Vehicles”.

    • Dave Hedgehog 27/04/2017 at 2:22 pm #

      There has been evidence released that diesel cars release 10 times more toxic pollutants such as NOx than lorries or buses due to the various cheat devices fitted by manufacturers and ineffective filters, diesel engines (125 year old technology) simply don’t belong in cars that spend the majority of their working life stuck in traffic on the way to the shops or a school. The whole thing is a travesty.

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