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The air cyclists breathe

Bicyclists in lanes separated from active traffic by a row of parked cars breathe in less pollution

Richard Schiffman | NYT 

air pollution, cycle, bicycle
Cycling and other strenuous activities boost the volume of air — and therefore the particulates — that are inhaled

On weekdays, Darby Jack bicycles the 15 miles from his home in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, to his office at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public in Washington Heights. Unlike most people who to work, the 42-year-old assistant professor of wears sensors that monitor how much air he breathes in during the trip along with levels along his route.

This elaborate gadgetry is part of a five-year study that aims to find out at what point the harm done by to might outweigh the benefits accrued from the exercise.

The strapped-on sensors measure levels of PM 2.5, the fine particulate matter that is about one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair and thought to be particularly harmful to The tiny particles, including black carbon, the main component of soot, penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream and may lead to the development of respiratory illnesses like asthma and lung cancer. Even relatively short-term exposures can increase body-wide inflammation and boost the likelihood of strokes and heart attacks.

“Our hope is that the city will employ our data as one of many inputs in designing better bicycling paths to minimise these risks,” said Jack. The findings could lead to safer ways to engage in all kinds of exercise outdoors, especially on days when levels are particularly high.

A 2014 report issued by the New York City Department said that particulates in the air cause more than 2,000 premature deaths and 6,000 emergency room visits and hospitalisations each year. And while the city has rapidly expanded its lanes and other bike-friendly infrastructure during the past decade, most of the planning to date has focused on traffic safety concerns, not

So far, two years into the study, 40 have been recruited through announcements on public radio station WNYC to suit up like Jack. The researchers are looking to recruit 150 more.

The information collected will be used to create a street-level map of New York and an app that will help choose less polluted routes. Participants’ blood pressure and heart rates are also monitored to assess the impact of riding on the city’s streets on the cardiovascular system.

“Our preliminary data shows that many are getting a bit over half of their daily dose in only 6 to 8 per cent of their day during their daily commutes,” said Steven Chillrud, a geochemist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia, who is conducting the study with Jack.

Early results indicate that in lanes that are separated from active traffic by a row of parked cars breathe in a lot less than those who use lanes adjacent to the traffic. The researchers are also finding perennial hot spots, like the spiralling approach to the Manhattan Bridge that Jack encounters on his daily ride. “The looping highways on all sides funnel the bad air” he says. “I’m riding uphill, breathing hard, it’s a perfect storm of negative factors.”

Bridges, where traffic bottlenecks are common, and the interior of Manhattan, which is buffeted by fewer refreshing breezes than the island’s periphery, are also prone to higher levels. The city’s roads are generally more polluted during the morning rush hour than during the evening rush hour, when winds tend to be greater.

But just as important as the level of in an area is the effort exerted by a bicyclist to pedal through it. “We know that just walking we are breathing in two to three times the air as we are when we are sitting,” Chillrud explained. Cycling and other strenuous activities like jogging and playing basketball boost the volume of air — and therefore the particulates — that we are inhaling. Jack, for example, breathes in roughly eight litres of air per minute when he is resting; when he cycles that volume soars to 70 litres. Biking hard, uphill or fast increases one’s intake still further.

Another consideration is that the impact of varies a lot from person to person. “If you have a lung disease like asthma, cardiovascular problems or diabetes, or if you are a young child, a teen or elderly, you will likely be more susceptible to harm,” says Janice Nolen, the assistant vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association. “There is also evidence that women — whose lungs are slightly smaller than men’s — are more affected by

Nolen said the Columbia study will provide much-needed information but cautions that people who participate in such research tend to be young, healthy and male, so the results may not accurately represent the population at large. Indeed, Jack said, the Columbia study’s volunteers do skew young and male. “The good news is we’re getting cleaner vehicles and less pollution,” Nolen said.


© 2017 The New York Times

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