A minute-by-minute physiological analysis of a cyclist in New York City is currently underway, as part of a new study aiming to determine the health impacts of inner city air pollution. The working title of this study (currently in its early stages) is ‘Help Map Bike – Commuting Air Quality’, with the research team comprising of representatives from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Lamont – Doherty Earth Observatory. Reading about this study in a National Geographic article last week led me to question: is cycling still a healthy commuting option in cities?

Ongoing research into cyclists’ exposure to air pollution has been conducted in numerous studies for over two decades now – but this new Columbia University and Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory investigation demonstrates just how far pollution and health monitoring and personal tracking technology has progressed. For this study, Columbia University researchers are providing volunteers with a mesh shirt embedded with pollution monitors, a tracking system which includes GPS software and a blood pressure monitor – an innovative approach enabling cyclists’ personal exposure to be monitored without interrupting their commuting journey. Prior to this technology, the typical approach used in research was to estimate personal air pollutant exposure based on concentrations reported from fixed location monitoring stations in cities. However, this is no longer widely being used due to the flexibility and greater accuracy that more recent monitoring technology offers. The new Columbia study is the first to simultaneously collect real-time health and pollution data.

The health risks associated with exposure to air pollution around the world have been widely documented.

The health risks associated with exposure to air pollution around the world have been widely documented. In September 2013, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the City University of New York published a report entitled ‘New York City Trends in Air Pollution and its health consequences’ which stated that concentrations of PM2.5 (particles equal to or less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter) in the city were linked to more than 2000 deaths due to chronic heart/lung complications; nearly 5000 visits to hospital Emergency Department visits due to asthma; and approximately 1500 hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular disease each year. Particles are emitted from a range of sources including motor vehicles, burning wood and power plants. Recent research published in January this year by the Journal of Thoracic Disease reveals that PM2.5 penetrates deeply into the lung, subsequently impairing lung function and increasing the risk of lung cancers. These particles have also been linked to an increase in patients presenting with heart disease, particularly in susceptible groups (including the elderly and those with a history of heart problems).

During exercise, humans typically breathe faster with larger volumes of air entering the lungs. Cyclists in city areas (which typically have higher air pollution concentrations than other areas) are therefore potentially inhaling higher concentrations of pollutants during their commute. If repeated day after day, year after year, this could present a serious threat to their health. It could also reduce their enjoyment of cycling and cause them to question their decision to cycle rather than use their cars or public transport. If they decide to cease cycling and revert back to using their cars to commute because they deem the health risk of exposure too high, such a decision will have implications for pollution concentrations, transport infrastructure planning (particularly traffic congestion) and population health in cities given exposure to higher pollutant concentrations from increased traffic congestion.

Read more information on the Columbia University study here

I applaud the Columbia University team for the innovative approach used in their study. While I note that the study is only in its early stages there is no reason why it can’t or shouldn’t be replicated around the world. The study can provide extremely useful data for Governments worldwide to better plan transport routes and options in and out of cities. The study should also prompt Government action with regards to increasing the uptake of more integrated public transport or alternatives such as electric vehicles for use by Government Department staff, businesses and individuals alike to reduce air pollution exposure. Leadership of this nature from Governments can mitigate increasing air pollution, thereby making cities more liveable and encouraging active and healthy lifestyles.

Rising levels of air pollution have been an issue in cities around the world for many decades now, and unless Governments commit to serious action, it is only going to worsen as the global population increases. Innovation will bring about significant changes in both monitoring technologies and regulatory approaches – both of which must be embraced in order to fight air pollution and the health burdens that result from more and more people being exposed to increasing particle concentrations in cities. Government inaction may result in the question as to whether cycling is still a healthy commuting option in cities – being only the start of an uncomfortable but very necessary conversation as to why they are not acting to reduce air pollution exposure in the interest of public health not just for cyclists but all inhabitants.

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