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Air pollution hits dangerous levels across the UK

Should you carry on riding and stay indoors when the air quality's bad? We help you decide...

Cyclists are being warned that air pollution has hit dangerous levels - expected to hit level 7 and above on the Government’s Daily Air Quality Index over the coming days.

Air pollution caused the Mayor of London to issue his second HIGH air pollution warning since January this year, following the launch of his Breathe Better Together campaign. 

Now this week’s pollution incident comes just days before the UK Supreme Court hears the case brought by ClientEarth against the Government for breaches of air pollution legal limits.

Philip Insall, Director of Health for Sustrans said: “The poor state of air pollution in Britain is both criminal and a national embarrassment.

“This latest alert comes as the UK Government is in the dock at the Supreme Court next week, seeking to defend its failure to tackle air pollution.’

“We know that local air pollution is causing at least 29,000 premature deaths a year and we know that it is primarily due to emissions from motor traffic. It’s clear that we can only address this by reducing reliance on motor vehicles.

“The next Government will need to get a grip on air pollution.  That will mean serious, dedicated investment and an effective programme of action to help more people out of their cars and choosing walking and cycling for short journeys.

"That won’t just mean fewer deaths from pollution – it will also tackle obesity and other diseases, climate emissions and congestion, benefiting our health and economy.”

Despite the warning, we recently reported how it is better to carry on riding when the air quality is bad, but if you can, ride away from main roads.

That's the message of research from the University of Copenhagen which has found that the benefits of exercise outweigh the harmful effects of air pollution.

The study shows that despite its adverse effects on health, air pollution should not stop people from exercising in urban areas.

"Even for those living in the most polluted areas of Copenhagen, it is healthier to go for a run, a walk or to cycle to work than it is to stay inactive," says Associate Professor Zorana Jovanovic Andersen from the Centre for Epidemiology and Screening at the University of Copenhagen.

Professor Andersen says that physical activity reduces the risk of premature mortality, while air pollution increases it. But when we exercise we take in more airborne pollutants, and they accumulate in our lungs.

"Air pollution is often perceived as a barrier to exercise in urban areas. In the face of an increasing health burden due to rising physical inactivity and obesity in modern societies, our findings provide support for efforts in promoting exercise, even in urban areas with high pollution," says Professor Andersen.

"However, we would still advise people to exercise and cycle in green areas, parks, woods, with low air pollution and away from busy roads, when possible."

The study looked at data from 52,061 subjects, aged 50-65 years, from the two main cities Aarhus and Copenhagen, who participated in the cohort study Diet, Cancer and Health.

From 1993-97, they reported on their physical leisure activities, including sports, cycling to and from work, gardening and walking. The researchers then estimated air pollution levels from traffic at their residential addresses.

5,500 participants died before 2010, and the researchers observed about 20% fewer deaths among those who exercised than among those who didn't exercise, even for those who lived in the most polluted areas, in central Copenhagen and Aarhus, or close to busy roads and highways.

And as we reported just last month, all 50 of Britain’s worst air pollution blackspots are in London.

Each has at least double the EU limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is generated by emissions from diesel vehicles and linked to asthma and other respiratory problems.

According to data obtained under Freedom of Information, the most polluted street is Marylebone Road, followed by Park Lane, Knightsbridge, the Hammersmith Flyover and the East Ham and Barking Bypass.

While the European Union sets a limit of 40 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre on average per year, the junction between Marylebone Road and Glentworth Street showed 132 micrograms and all 50 pollution blackspots exceeded 80 micrograms.

Last year, Oxford Street was found to have a peak level of nitrogen dioxide of 463 micrograms and an average of 135. David Carslaw, an emissions researcher at King’s College London, remarked that this was to his knowledge the highest in the world in terms of both hourly and annual mean.

After an unpromising start, having to be bribed by her parents to learn to ride without stabilisers, Sarah became rather keener on cycling in her university years, and was eventually persuaded to upgrade to proper road cycling by the prospect of a shiny red Italian bike, which she promptly destroyed by trapping a pair of knickers in the rear derailleur. Sarah writes about about cycling every weekend on road.cc.

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