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Study shows city cyclists inhale 5 times more toxic nanoparticles than pedestrians and drivers

Belgian boffins report that cycling in cities is worst for toxins

Cyclists have always feared that riding in heavily polluted cities is injurious to health but new research published in Belgium appears to show that the scale of the problem is worse than we might have feared.

Luc Int Panis of the Transport Research Institute at Hasselt University in Belgium has just published his group's research in the journal Atmospheric Environment. It shows that cyclists in cities inhale tens of millions of toxic nanoparticles with every breath, at least five times more than drivers or pedestrians. 

He told today's Sunday Times “This is the first time anyone has counted the particles while also measuring people’s breathing during city commuting. It showed that cyclists can inhale an astonishing number of pollutant particles in one journey.”

The research involved fitting cyclists with devices that could count the particles, mostly emitted by vehicle exhausts, in the air they were breathing.

It showed that urban concentrations of nanoparticles, which measure just a few millionths of a millimetre, could reach several hundred thousand in a cubic centimetre of air. The particles, when inhaled, have been linked by previous widely documented research to heart disease and respiratory problems.

The Belgian study appears to contradict earlier studes into the affects of air pollution on different road users, most notably a 1998 Danish study, which concluded that drivers breathed in greater levels of pollutants than cyclists.

One of the first commenters to the Sunday Times article said, "I laughed my head off! Poetic justice on all those cyclists who clog our roads making it more and more difficult for me to drive my car"


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Kevin Steinhardt | 13 years ago

That is highly plausible: as a pedestrian, my point in space would be moving slower in proportion to the speed of the pollutant; 'following it' on a bicycle, one is obviously going to get it in the face more — either that or I've misunderstood the research.

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