As air pollution levels soar should you stop riding?

Experts say cycling is part of the pollution solution

by John Stevenson   April 2, 2014  

London pollution haze (CC licensed image by Alun Salt:Flickr)

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.

44 user comments

Latest 30 commentsNewest firstBest ratedAll

Yes Sir, this is all because of cars and taxis. Nothing to do with the tons and tons of alluminium and barium pumped into the sky as chemtrails. No way, chemtrails don't exist. No siree, them persistent white lines in the sky next to the contrails is perfectly natural, yes sir. All that dust be comin from the Sahara, sho nuff. Blame dem cars, bossee.

493rd in GC Fantasy TdF 2014

posted by Sanderville [218 posts]
2nd April 2014 - 18:16

33 Likes

Take your chemtrail agenda off to a different topic, this has nothing to do with them.

It's not because of cars and taxis, it's because of deliberate political agendas, still living in ignorance?.

posted by northstar [1107 posts]
2nd April 2014 - 19:02

28 Likes

#BloodyMotorists

posted by Quince [151 posts]
2nd April 2014 - 19:24

34 Likes

If you want me to take it to a different topic then don't finish with a question. Get it?

493rd in GC Fantasy TdF 2014

posted by Sanderville [218 posts]
2nd April 2014 - 19:47

28 Likes

Sanderville wrote:
If you want me to take it to a different topic then don't finish with a question. Get it?

Clearly you don't because if you did you'd realise they are completely unrelated.

*laughing*

posted by northstar [1107 posts]
2nd April 2014 - 19:48

37 Likes

If high petrol prices won't reduce car use, pollution is not going to. The "normal" way for humans to get about is now via car.

I've identified a gap in the market for fitting HEPA filters to car ventilation systems though.......

posted by paulmcmillan [79 posts]
2nd April 2014 - 19:57

21 Likes

I honestly don't realise how a sudden spike in atmospheric pollution across the country is unrelated to a massive surge in chemtrails over the UK observed, photographed and posted to the internet in the last couple of days. Especially in a city like London that has no heavy industry, no coal fires, and traffic curtailed by swingeing road access tariffs, but where Saharan sand is suddenly announced to be a toxic hazard for the first time in living memory. I honestly would like you to enlighten me on that, O Star of the North.

*not laughing at all, in fact totally disgusted to be corresponding with Sally Bercow*

493rd in GC Fantasy TdF 2014

posted by Sanderville [218 posts]
2nd April 2014 - 20:33

19 Likes

You mean you are corresponding yourself, "Sally"?

Your apparent deliberate ignorance(?) / just general stupidity(?) is quite amusing.

posted by northstar [1107 posts]
2nd April 2014 - 20:49

32 Likes

northstar, you sound like a taxpayer-funded Common Purpose graduate whose lifestyle depends on the continued funding of Agenda 21. But since you don't have a single word to back up your position - on yer bike, love.

493rd in GC Fantasy TdF 2014

posted by Sanderville [218 posts]
2nd April 2014 - 20:50

15 Likes

I changed jobs this year, and used my car to commute from Milton Keynes to Ampthill in Bedfordshire during January and February. But as soon as I was able to bring my bike from home I've been back on two wheels. So I'm doing my bit. Didn't seem too bad today, it was very hazy.

Surpisingly there are some lovely quiet roads to explore around here Big Grin So you can get away from all the BMW and AUDI drivers who seem to think they own the road! I have no idea what it about these makes of car, but they seem to be the most selfish drivers.

Endorphines going up and adrenaline going down, who needs drugs?

posted by banzicyclist2 [226 posts]
2nd April 2014 - 22:04

23 Likes

paulmcmillan wrote:
If high petrol prices won't reduce car use, pollution is not going to. The "normal" way for humans to get about is now via car.

True about the default way to get around, but I work in the breakdown industry and there's quite a lot of evidence that high petrol prices have reduced car use. All we can hope is that the government doesn't succumb to pressure to reduce duty. All that will happen is that the companies will raise prices to the same as they were but keep the extra profit.

The problem is that the rising prices affect those have have to drive (the disabled, people delivering stuff) as well as people who are driving half a mile to the supermarket when they could walk.

posted by SteppenHerring [220 posts]
2nd April 2014 - 23:25

17 Likes

Nice fresh air up here in the North West!

Silly me. You're probably right....

MercuryOne's picture

posted by MercuryOne [1071 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 0:03

25 Likes

lol, how did this topic get onto chemtrails? It's not a full moon is it? Silly

posted by bikebot [630 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 0:18

26 Likes

bikebot wrote:
lol, how did this topic get onto chemtrails? It's not a full moon is it? Silly

Neither is it 1st April.

Airzound

posted by Airzound [371 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 0:35

24 Likes

bikebot wrote:
lol, how did this topic get onto chemtrails? It's not a full moon is it? Silly

Some people believe in fairies. Similarly, others believe in 'chemtrails'. Bless.

posted by TimC340 [42 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 5:41

24 Likes

Oh my, we've got a live one. I do love a conspiracy butter.
Just hoping the air improves by Sunday. Air quality is lovely here in Tenerife!

posted by Al__S [588 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 8:19

17 Likes

Sanderville wrote:
... a massive surge in chemtrails over the UK observed, photographed and posted to the internet in the last couple of days.

The massive spike in pollution is probably caused by the increased power consumption in data centres hosting conspiracy theory websites.

posted by sponican [67 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 9:27

24 Likes

SteppenHerring wrote:
True about the default way to get around, but I work in the breakdown industry and there's quite a lot of evidence that high petrol prices have reduced car use.

Or are you just seeing fewer breakdowns? I also suspect it depends where you measure it as congestion in and around Shrewsbury is, if anything, getting worse.

SteppenHerring wrote:
The problem is that the rising prices affect those have have to drive (the disabled, people delivering stuff) as well as people who are driving half a mile to the supermarket when they could walk.

That's an old one. If there are so many disabled people driving where are they? Blue badge holders are a very small percentage of the traffic.

For delivery drivers it's just another component of the cost of doing business. Tough.

Colleagues at the office are talking about the pollution (though we're a long way from the South East) but none of them has even dreamt of using an alternative way of getting to work, like 99% of all drivers, I'm sure. They don't see that they are part of the problem.

Jenny Jones is asking why Boris & TfL aren't doing anything constructive:
http://www.leftfootforward.org/2014/04/why-is-boris-johnson-a-bystander-...

Simon E's picture

posted by Simon E [1999 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 9:39

13 Likes

After a short but hard ride last night here in SE London I know have a horrid cough.

Was very wheezy on getting home.

Looking this morning at the smog I took the car! Laughing

posted by gazzaputt [183 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 10:01

16 Likes

I rode into work in central London today.
The air quality was poor, but similar to other days when it's not headline news.

posted by thereverent [304 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 10:42

6 Likes

I don't usually notice, but yesterday evening it did feel a bit ozoney. The air felt oddly like a hot summer's evening, stuffy - but not so warm. Weird.

Mind you, the air in east London is quite often a bit 'ripe'.

Boardman CX Team '14 | Cannondale CAAD8 '12 (written off, SMIDSY) | Scott Sportster '08

Gizmo_'s picture

posted by Gizmo_ [894 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 10:42

15 Likes

thereverent wrote:
I rode into work in central London today.
The air quality was poor, but similar to other days when it's not headline news.

Like this?
Defra UK pollution map

London Nowcast

What make and model of pollution device did you use to measure the different types of pollution? No wait, let me guess, you have special magic eyes which you use to analyse the pollution which is not visible at a short distance.

posted by kie7077 [506 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 11:14

13 Likes

Sanderville wrote:
I honestly don't realise how a sudden spike in atmospheric pollution across the country is unrelated to a massive surge in chemtrails over the UK observed, photographed and posted to the internet in the last couple of days.

What you might be seeing is a spike in CON(desation)trails!!!

Or then again you might not because the air is so full of crap you can't see **** 100ft away!

mrmo's picture

posted by mrmo [1177 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 11:15

8 Likes

"Current London air quality map. Very high readings. Funny how Saharan sand seems to blow along the busiest roads."
http://pic.twitter.com/OzQ7RNkOCr

But nearly everyone is ignoring the same old bull wrecking the china shop again Sad

Simon E's picture

posted by Simon E [1999 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 11:20

18 Likes

kie7077 wrote:
What make and model of pollution device did you use to measure the different types of pollution? No wait, let me guess, you have special magic eyes which you use to analyse the pollution which is not visible at a short distance.

My point was air quality in London is often very poor, but no-one cares when it not caused by Saharan dust (well 5% caused by Saharan dust, 95% caused by the usual air pollution).

posted by thereverent [304 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 11:44

11 Likes

There was fog on the Tyne this morning. Pretty sure it was mostly composed of actual fog but I put some extra tin foil on my helmet just in case.

joemmo's picture

posted by joemmo [858 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 12:07

7 Likes

joemmo wrote:
There was fog on the Tyne this morning. Pretty sure it was mostly composed of actual fog but I put some extra tin foil on my helmet just in case.

Blame Gazza for that. It's all his, apparently.

posted by allez neg [4 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 12:43

7 Likes

allez neg wrote:
joemmo wrote:
There was fog on the Tyne this morning. Pretty sure it was mostly composed of actual fog but I put some extra tin foil on my helmet just in case.

Blame Gazza for that. It's all his, apparently.

You'll find that Lindisfarne are the original claimants, Alan Hull to be more specific. Gazza may well have made a later claim but he's not terribly reliable these days so it could be anyone's as far as I know. Quite surprised Sting hasn't had a go and flown it back to LA or wherever he lives when he's not reminding everyone he's a proper Geordie like.

Anyway, it's still there so if they'd like to come and collect before I ride home that would be nice.

joemmo's picture

posted by joemmo [858 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 13:05

5 Likes

thereverent wrote:
kie7077 wrote:
What make and model of pollution device did you use to measure the different types of pollution? No wait, let me guess, you have special magic eyes which you use to analyse the pollution which is not visible at a short distance.

My point was air quality in London is often very poor, but no-one cares when it not caused by Saharan dust (well 5% caused by Saharan dust, 95% caused by the usual air pollution).

Fair enough, it could have been read that you thought that pollution is not news-worthy in general. It bugs the hell out of me that 1/3 of people die from lung problems and yet society doesn't take pollution seriously. We have toxins in the materials that make our floors, walls, buildings, furniture, clothes, electronics, food containers, food, drink, fuel etc etc. And people don't see the link between this and cancer FFS.

Vehicle Pollution UK: 29,000 deaths
Vehicle Collisions UK: 1,754 deaths

Traffic pollution deaths in London : 4300
Cyclist accident deaths in London: 14

posted by kie7077 [506 posts]
3rd April 2014 - 13:22

5 Likes

Oh dear a little bit of mist for a few days, and smog was really a mixture of smoke and fog, so unlike the pea soupers of the sixties, this is a rare tame event but here the predictable suspects target motor transport again.

Yes if we all cycled- and that ain't gonna happen ever- then the air would be cleaner but society wouldn't run at all and we would all very soon die from lack of basics including food, heat and water. Not very healthy that at all then. Since the motoring explosion we all live longer don't we?

So don't let's salivate about doom. A little breeze and a bigger story to fill the pages and this mist will be just an overblown distant memory.

Road safety 'experts' are often folk who's CV doesn't cut the mustard.

posted by Sedgepeat [64 posts]
4th April 2014 - 22:07

6 Likes