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London vs Europe in row over cycling on high-pollution days

Environment Commissioner says Londoners riding to work may be doing more harm than good to themselves

A row has broken out between European environmental authorities and the Mayor of London over the risk of staying active when London suffers days of high atmospheric pollution.

Europe’s Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik told the Evening Standard’s Nicholas Cecil that Londoners riding bikes to work on high pollution days could be doing themselves more harm than good.

He advised that people should be wary of jogging when the air quality is very poor and implicitly added to criticism of the Mayor and Government for not doing enough to publicise the hazards of high pollution.

He said: “It is wrong that people should be anything other than fully aware and informed when pollutant levels are high.

“Medical advice suggests that people should not exert themselves physically during episodes of high pollution  - when that jog in the park or cycle to work could be doing considerably more harm than good.”

Potocnik said people should use websites and apps that provide updates on air quality.

The Mayor’s office dismissed Potocnik concerns.

“The sensible advice given to healthy Londoners by medical professionals is to continue their normal daily activity,” said a spokeswoman for the Mayor.

“Recent research from Barcelona published in the British Medical Journal suggests the health benefits of cycling on normal healthy people greatly outweigh the health risk of air pollution 77 fold.”

Dr Paul Cosford, director for health protection at Public Health England agrees. During the pollution peak in the first couple of days of this month he told BBC Radio 4’s Today program: “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.”

However, he did warn that those who felt the effects of the poor air qulity should take it easy. He said: “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.”

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.

Many of the pollution hotspots causing concern to the European Commission are in London. In one of the ‘dead cat’ debating tactics for which he is famous, London Mayor Boris Johnson has claimed European vehicle emissions standards can be “diddled” by manufacturers.

That, he said, made the threat of a fine “doubly absurd”.

Potocnik responded that Johnson had “romanticised the dust of London” when he implied the pollution in early April was largely caused by sand blown in from the Sahara. Many commentators pointed out how remarkable it was that the sand had managed to increase pollution along London’s major roads.

Potocnik said the criticism of Brussels was “intellectual sleight of hand” and that member states had “hampered” Commission moves for cleaner engines in a short timeframe.

The Mayor’s office claimed London had “the most ambitious and comprehensive package of measures to tackle pollution”.

John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.

He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.

Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for Along with founder Tony Farrelly, John was on the launch team for and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.

John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.

He joined in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

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