I was struck by an article on the BBC News website today, claiming that “Cyclists are ‘unaware of the risks from pollution’“. Two things stand out in that piece:

1) “hard evidence on the impact of air pollution on the health of the general population is inconclusive. Some studies have reported a decline in lung function with airway inflammation, whilst others highlight a very weak tenuous link between air pollution and any effects on the respiratory system.”

2) “Monitoring air quality in the UK has not been given enough publicity or funding. As a result, often cyclists do not fully appreciate what risks they are imposing upon themselves by cycling in areas where air quality is sub optimal.”

The article references no new data (or indeed any data sources at all), so why is this old story being recirculated? The author only talks about lung function and respiratory system, it is well known that particulate pollution is a risk factor in heart disease. The article refers to “Several studies have specifically investigated the effects of air pollution on lung function in cyclists”. However, it fails to point out that in all of these studies, blood samples from the control groups (i.e., those who were sitting still, rather then taking exercise during the experiment) had higher levels of pollutants in their blood stream as a result of exposure to the same level of air pollution.

The second sentence of 2) is also informative, why just cyclists? Why not all of us? There is plenty of evidence that shows that people with higher levels of fitness are more healthy, and at least risk. It is widely known that the health benefits of cycling and running out weigh the risks by a ratio of 20:1. The highest risk groups are the very young, the elderly and the sedentary, and this is true in the case of air pollution. As a BBC news story pointed out in March 2010: “A Commons Environmental Audit Committee report said failure to reduce pollution had put an “enormous” cost on the NHS and could cost millions in EU fines. It said the UK should be ‘ashamed’ of its poor air quality which was contributing to conditions such as asthma, heart disease and cancer.” The health costs of this pollution are estimated at between £8.5bn and £20.2bn each year, this gives the potential for massive savings in a time of austerity.

I would question whether our priority should be giving people “informed choices when it comes to deciding what measures they can adopt to protect themselves against air pollution”. Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on achieving reductions in pollutant levels? In order to do that, not only do we have to monitor air quality, but actually follow that up with action to reduce pollutant levels. It is well known that there is a problem, and that that problem is largely caused by motorised transport. This is something which is seriously missing from Government policy at the present time. The EU is about to impose very heavy fines on the UK for missing binding targets on air quality, the UK is the only country in Europe to have missed these targets. This is not a new problem, it is one that successive Governments have known about for well over twenty years!

Addendum: a recent study on the Respiratory effects of commuters’ exposure to air pollution in traffic (Zuurbier et al. 2011) has shown that breathing traffic air pollution while commuting has a negative effect lung function. It also showed that those who travelled by car or bus were more likely to suffer harm than those who travelled by bicycle.

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