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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In your home, an areca palm which costs around £15 helps remove air toxins. The plant requires minimum care and thrives indoors.
- 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.