Air pollution is in the headlines today as a variety of weather conditions including dust blown in from the Sahara combine to push the level of pollution to the top of Defra's ten-point scale in some parts of south-east England. Should cyclists be concerned and what can be done about it?
The immediate good news, according to Dr Paul Cosford, director for health protection at Public Health England, is that normally healthy people should have nothing to worry about.
Speaking on the Today program this morning, Dr Cosford said: “For normal healthy people, I am on my bike today and other people should be. We don’t need to buy little white masks, we need to increase the amount of physical activity that we do because it’s great for our health.
“So this is, in a way, a reminder to do something that is both good for the environment, let’s reduce the air pollution, but lets do things that are good for our health too, let’s walk, let’s cycle, let’s do all the things that are of benefit to us.”
Dr Cosford said that if you do feel the effects of the bad air, then take it easier.
“We may notice sore eyes coughs, or throat and maybe a little bit of a wheeze if we’re taking physical activity outdoors and if that occurs it’s sensible to reduce, during these high pollution episodes, the amount of physical activity.”
That's not to play down the risk to anyone with an existing condition, such as asthma. Dr Helen Dacre, a meteorologist at the University of Reading, told the Independent: "High air pollution levels can cause unpleasant and dangerous effects on health, both long and short term.
"Toxic gases, such as nitrogen dioxide and ozone, as well as fine dust particles in the air blown in from the Sahara and from burning fossil fuels, all contribute to cause problems for people with heart, lung and breathing problems, such as asthma.
"The problem is likely to be particularly bad today because weather conditions have conspired to create a 'perfect storm' for air pollution."
Because of air pollution’s effect on people who are already ill or elderly, it’s a major contributor to early death, according to Public Health England, which says on its website: “In the UK alone, it is estimated that the burden of long-term exposure to anthropogenic particulate air pollution in 2008 was an effect on mortality equivalent to nearly 29,000 deaths at typical ages and an associated loss of total population life of 340,000 life-years.”
Diesel vehicles are a major source of air pollution. The UK is facing fines of up to £300 million per year from the European Commission for its failure to rein in emissions of nitrogen dioxide from diesels.
Governments were supposed to have reduced air pollution to “safe levels” by 2010. A five-year extension was granted to countries with problem areas, as long as they had “a credible and workable plan for meeting air-quality standards within five years of the original deadline” but Britain looks unlikely to hit the target in 2015.
“The UK has not presented any such plan for the zones in question. The Commission is therefore of the opinion that the UK is in breach of its obligations under the directive,” the commission said.
What steps can the UK take to improve things? You probably won’t be surprised to hear that experts think cycling can be a big part of the solution to pollution.
Dr Cosford said the answers included, “things like greening our vehicles, improving the public transport system so that it’s easier to use public transport rather than using cars, but particularly two other things: creating better green spaces in our cities and towns, and also the more that we encourage active transport like walking and cycling.
“That is particularly beneficial, it reduces the amount of road transport, reduces the amount of air pollution and also gives us that fantastic health benefit.”
While London and the South-East chokes and politicians quail from putting people’s health above the interests of the road haulage lobby, Paris has already taken steps to reduce motor traffic and therefore pollution at times of poor air quality.
The BBC reports that on Monday March 17, a car ban was imposed in Paris following pollution levels of 180 microgrammes of PM10 particulates per cubic metre on Friday March 14. The ‘safe’ limit is 80µg/m3.
Seven hundred Parisian police officers monitored the city’s roads from 180 control points around the region between 5:30am and midnight, allowing only vehicles with odd-numbered licence plates on the road. The next day it was the turn of even-number plated cars.
Police reportedly issued 4,000 tickets for a €22 fine by midday on March 17, with 27 cars impounded after their drivers refused to cooperate.
The preceding Friday (March 14) public transport was free of charge and that continued over the weekend into the Monday.
In October 2011 the Italian city of Milan banned all traffic from its streets for 10 hours in an attempt to reduce smog.
Active travel organisations have pointed out that the root of the problem is that motorised transport has been made a priority in city planning for many decades.
Philip Insall, Director of Health for sustainable transport charity Sustrans said: “Hardly a day passes without new and frightening evidence of the harm done by our obsession with motorised transport.
“The World Health Organisation has calculated that globally, air pollution kills seven million people a year. In the UK it is a grave threat to health – and yet right in front of us is a major contribution to solving the air quality problem: a shift to walking and cycling for local trips.
“More people travelling on foot or by bike would mean less congestion and also cut the death toll from climate change and from physical inactivity.
“Today’s air quality warning is another red light for traditional car-dominated transport policies. Government needs to do much more, right now, in the way of policy and dedicated investment in clean, healthy travel such as walking and cycling.”
Elliot Johnston contributed to this story.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.