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Can pollution cut the health benefits of cycling to work?

A a study extols the cancer and heart benefits or a two wheeled commute, we explore whether heavy pollution can derail your aims

Cyclists in London have said they feel claims that commuting to work by bike can halve the risk f developing cancer and heart disease have been overstated.

As we reported earlier this week, the University of Glasgow study found that compared to people who commuted by car or on public transport, regular commuter cyclists were 41 per cent less likely to die from any cause.

But riders in the capital were quick to point out that their journeys did not feel healthy.

 

But Donnachadh McCarthy, co-founder of campaign group Stop Killing Cyclists, told the Standard he "welcomed the study".

"The pollution is not any worse for cyclists than motorists so it's still hugely beneficial to cycle," he said. "For people over the age of 65 it adds three years to their life.”

We’ve also reported on how a recent study concluded that the benefits of physical activity almost always outweigh the negative effects of pollution for those cycling in urban areas. Researchers say their findings should encourage people out of their cars and onto their bikes and in so doing reduce pollution levels further.

London’s air pollution, which is caused primarily by traffic and diesel fumes, is responsible for 9,500 premature deaths each year, according to a 2015 study by King’s College, London. Thanks to their proximity to traffic and deeper breathing, a cyclist can expect greater exposure to that threat than most.

According to a 2011 study by researchers from the London School of Medicine, a cycle commuter inhales more than twice the amount of black carbon particles as a pedestrian making a comparable trip. Stopped on your bike at a set of traffic lights, wallowing in the fumes, these kinds of things have probably crossed your mind.

But a recent Cambridge University study found that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks caused by air pollution in 99 per cent of cities. Is the capital one of them? How long would you have to cycle in London before the effects of pollution started to outweigh the benefits of cycling?

The researchers established tipping points for each of the cities they looked at – the length of time after which the impact of pollution started to outweigh the positives that come with being more active.

Dr Marko Tainio from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, who led the study, said: “Our model indicates that in London health benefits of active travel always outweigh the risk from pollution.”

 

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14 comments

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FluffyKittenofT... | 6 years ago
3 likes

I swear I've seen references to research showing that cyclists (and runners) breath more deeply and so pull the particulates deeper into the lungs.

But either way, there is always the effect of physical inactivity on motorist's health. I notice the Daily Mail has another article ranting about how fat Brits are. It's funny how Mail commenters manage to hate fat people and people being physically active in about equal measure.

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Simon E replied to FluffyKittenofTindalos | 6 years ago
1 like
FluffyKittenofTindalos wrote:

It's funny how Mail commenters manage to hate fat people and people being physically active in about equal measure.

They seem to rail against everything. Deep down they must hate themselves almost as much as everyone else.

I am perennially glad I chose not to live in a city (4 weeks in Manchester convinced me beyond doubt). Even if I lived somewhere with high pollution, all the scaremongering articles would not stop me riding, though I may alter my routes to avoid the worst locations.

It's disappointing and a measure of the grip the car lobby and very vocal minority of drivers have on the government (and TfL) that so little has been done to address this issue, which we have known about for years.

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Simon E replied to Simon E | 6 years ago
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"The government has been accused of “running scared” of diesel drivers and attempting to bully judges over its last-minute bid to delay the publication of its clean air plan."

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/24/ministers-under-fire...

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ClubSmed | 6 years ago
1 like

Another study in the same field that also states that pollution is higher inside the car than outside it.

http://www.airqualitynews.com/2016/02/16/higher-air-pollution-health-ris...

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headingley | 6 years ago
6 likes

Lets try to stick to the facts - I'll rate a study involving nearly 250,000 people, as per the Glasgow Report) over a few comments on Facebook or Twitter. Many other studies show that active exercise benefits outweigh the (very real) effects of rpad traffic pollution. I cannot help think that the Governments plans to deal with diesel pollution (already looking delayed) will be ineffective. Remember that a lot of the harmful pollution can't be seen or smelled.

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Twowheelsaregreat | 6 years ago
0 likes

I can't understand it when the researchers compare the health benefits of driving in a car to cycling in a city. It is common sense that the more you breath the more of whatever it is around you you're going to inhale. Car drivers aren't breathing heavily and all modern cars have these air intake filter for the cabins that block out pollen and other particulates. Cyclists don't have this!

So the argument that driving (presumably this argument is aimed at city commutes) is less healthy than cycling is the wrong argument to use when attempting to encourage city commutes by bicycle.

Perhaps the best argument would be to say that you can travel between points A and B far faster by bicycle due to the gridlock that cars cause.

The government needs to offer far better incentives to encourage use of emission free vehicles. Forcing companies to offer showers, lockers and secure bicycle lock ups and offering their own form of incentives to encourage emissions free commuting.

The government needs to expedite further investment into rail infrastructure and low emissions public transport i.e. Hydrogen powered and electrically powered vehicles.

The government needs to invest more into the infrastructure that provides the energy requirements of these emissions free vehicles including cell recharging or pre-charged, instant cell replacement service stations. The government needs to look to the Netherlands and use the same hierarchy when considering building or rebuilding infrastructure. Maybe if the government used this approach...We'd prefer people to walk, if they can't do that then cycle, if they can't do that then train, if they can't do that then bus, if they can't do that then drive. Driving has to be the absolute last resort when it comes to travelling and the government needs to focus on the other methods and how they can be facilitated.

Everyone's addicted to the increased mobility that we have in the 21st century; there's no getting around that but I do think all our expectations need to shift. Is it really practical to do a 3 minute drive to satiate a late night craving for a bar of chocolate in a Land Rover V8? An extreme statement but it wouldn't suprise me one iota if somebody somewhere has done this. People will keep on doing it but it's the government that calls the shots and, if they are bandying up to the motor industry which they have done for far too long because of the jobs it provides and the cash it lines their pockets with, then there's no helping society.

Now all the technological advances that have been made in the motoring industry need to be applied to, at reduced cost, public transport that has less of an impact on our environment. The car industry owes the citizens of the world so much considering just what a huge detrimental impact they've had on the world's resources and societies. They will have a detrimental legacy there's no doubt about that and Joe public is just suckered along lured by the prospect of instant-on mobility and the statement it makes to their peers that they can afford a shiny, glistening, big metal box.

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OldRidgeback | 7 years ago
2 likes

Actually the effects of pollutions are worse for people in cars than for cyclists. I have seenr esearch into this but have no idea where you'd find the links, so you may want to search them out. The basic issue is that the air intoake for a car is set fairly low down so that it'll draw in a portion of the exhaust emissions of the vehicle in front with its low-mounted exhaust pipe. Once inside, those fumes can circulate inside the vehicle. As a cyclist (or motorcyclist) you sit higher and you're not directly positioned behind the car in front for as long and are also surrounded by free air, so you don't draw in so much exhaust pollution and also move into free air more readily.

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cyclisto replied to OldRidgeback | 7 years ago
1 like
OldRidgeback wrote:

Actually the effects of pollutions are worse for people in cars than for cyclists. I have seenr esearch into this but have no idea where you'd find the links, so you may want to search them out. The basic issue is that the air intoake for a car is set fairly low down so that it'll draw in a portion of the exhaust emissions of the vehicle in front with its low-mounted exhaust pipe. Once inside, those fumes can circulate inside the vehicle. As a cyclist (or motorcyclist) you sit higher and you're not directly positioned behind the car in front for as long and are also surrounded by free air, so you don't draw in so much exhaust pollution and also move into free air more readily.

No way.

When you cycle the air consumption drastically increases, and you don't have the HEPA cabin filter that modern cars have.
Unfortunately this can be felt in prsctice too. The great problem is that most cyclists refuse to admit when they first got out on the streets felt insantly the awful taste of burnt and unburnt fuel stuck at their tongues and throats and their eyes burning from NOx. That admittedly didn't happen that much with cars, unless you get stuck for 2 hours in heavy traffic with open windows. While we kept cycling this feeling was reduced because we got used to it. I can see that most urban cyclists, including me, have reduced smell ...well just like smokers. Practically urban cycling is like starting excersing and smoking together with dubious long term results, but still mostly positive. Should we improve the air quality at cities, cycling will be a much more attractive mode of transport.

Wake up!
Stop pretending that this is an inexistent problem and talk to people about the problems diesel vehicles cause and of course stop buying them yourselves. Try to convince people with arguments to lock their car and take public transport, walk or cycle to their work.
Motivate yourselves first and then other people! This should be a super hot topic but it is near dead while we see near 50 comments on topics like "shimano vs campy" or "a pro cyclist cut his shoe by a disk brake"

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burtthebike replied to cyclisto | 6 years ago
3 likes
cyclisto wrote:
OldRidgeback wrote:

Actually the effects of pollutions are worse for people in cars than for cyclists. I have seenr esearch into this but have no idea where you'd find the links, so you may want to search them out.

No way. When you cycle the air consumption drastically increases, and you don't have the HEPA cabin filter that modern cars have."

Large amount of snipped text

Oldridgeback is correct, and there is research showing that car occupants suffer more from pollution than cyclists do, and that must be true, it's in the Daily Mail http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2746925/Why-suffer-pollution-dri...

and it's even in cycling weekly, or cycling weakly in my case http://www.cyclingweekly.com/news/latest-news/cyclists-exposed-five-time...

The research showing huge benefits, the study that started this discussion, obviously had mainly city cycling as its basis, and despite all the doom-mongers saying that the pollution negates the health benefits, it absolutely unequivocally showed massive benefits.  Case proven.

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jh27 replied to OldRidgeback | 7 years ago
1 like
OldRidgeback wrote:

Actually the effects of pollutions are worse for people in cars than for cyclists.

People in cars don't tend to breathe heavily and the air intake is usually filtered. I very rarely notice exhaust fumes when sat in a car.

I use a respro techno mask and it is far from perfect. It does seem to cut down some of the fumes and it really helps on a cold day (i started using it in winter and immediately saw a reduction in my coughing and wheezing - though a scarf may have had the same effect). I don't care if people take objection to the way i look when wearing it, if it only serves to remind them of the toxins their vehicle is pumping out, then that is perhaps reason enough to wear it.

I'm think there's more of a safety argument for wearing an air filter than there is for wearing a polystyrene hat. I still, wear the latter, but mainly for protection from branches. Cyclists aren't at much greater risk of head injuries IMHO, but we are at much greater risk of developing Asthma and other air pollution related illnesses.

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brooksby | 7 years ago
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What are the pros and cons of those filter masks I see people wearing? Are they just for particulates? Anyone know anything about them?

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Jackson replied to brooksby | 7 years ago
3 likes
brooksby wrote:

What are the pros and cons of those filter masks I see people wearing? Are they just for particulates? Anyone know anything about them?

There's a proper review of some here https://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2015/oct/07/avoiding-p...

My takeaway was that you'll largely be wasting your time but worth a try if you have symptoms

 

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brooksby replied to Jackson | 7 years ago
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Jackson wrote:
brooksby wrote:

What are the pros and cons of those filter masks I see people wearing? Are they just for particulates? Anyone know anything about them?

There's a proper review of some here https://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2015/oct/07/avoiding-p...

My takeaway was that you'll largely be wasting your time but worth a try if you have symptoms

 

Thanks for that link. So: anyone know whether you can buy aero scuba tanks? yes

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cyclisto | 7 years ago
1 like

Poor air quality will kill much more cyclists than collisions, and still few really care about. There must be set strict restrictions on the vehicles sold from now and on and of course stop selling diesel engined models

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