Riders on the Smog


Written by Will Wlizlo, an Utne Reader blogger

“If you bike to work, you’ve probably got pretty nice thighs,” imagines The Atlantic Cities’ Nate Berg. “Your lungs, though, may not be in such great shape.”

Berg is referring to the results of a small-scale study released over the weekend that suggest urban cyclists are at increased risk from air pollution, specifically the black carbon present in automobile emissions. As Environmental News Network warns, “A wide range of health effects are associated with black carbon and include heart attacks and reduced lung function because it lines and constricts the airways.” As usual, just when you thought you had a healthy thing going, the medical research community has to go and suck the air out of it.

The Gothamist summarizes the testing process:

Researchers collected sputum samples from five adults who regularly cycled to work in London and five pedestrians, and analyzed the amount of black carbon found in their airway macrophages. According to a press release, all participants in the study were non-smoking healthy urban commuters aged between 18 and 40 yrs, and the probability that this difference occurred by chance is less than 1 in 100.

So why does it matter? Regular exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle, and one study has found that biking on a more consistent basis can extend your life 3-14 months. It’d be unfortunate if those 14 months were offset by the latent effects of air pollution, or, if without that daily dose of smog, regular cycling could extend one’s life 6-28 months.

Don’t count on amped up regulation, even in the most progressive, bike-friendly cities. (Just think of the heyday that libertarians would have . . .) For now the best advice may be: If you can’t beat the smog, ride around it. “Our data strongly suggest that personal exposure to black carbon should be considered when planning cycling routes,” says study researcher and dedicated cyclist Dr. Chinedu Nwokoro (as quoted in the study’s press release). When commuting, try to take off-street bike paths and low-traffic routes where available—which isn’t a bad idea anyway.

This post was originally published by the Utne Reader.


Related Stories:

New York Lawyers Fight For Cyclists’ Rights

Vilnius Mayor Crushes Car in Bike Lane: Cyclists’ Revenge (Video)

Moving Planet Day — Thousands Demand Action on Climate Crisis


Photo from J. Yung via flickr creative commons

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Sarah Metcalf
Sarah M.4 years ago

I always get nasty smog in my face when I am riding. It's not at all easy to avoid. It's so terrible that I am doing something good for the environment and that is what I get in return. We desperately need to do something. Bikers, pedestrians, and well, everyone, deserves clean air to breathe.

Brian M.
Past Member 4 years ago

Air pollution is killing all of us. Some of us are just getting sicker faster than others. We have to demand that the EPA and the Clean Air Act, not only be preserved, but expanded.

Alamzeb Akhund
Alamzeb Khan4 years ago


Dianne Robertson
Dianne Robertson4 years ago

Jim G., there IS SOMETHING WITHIN YOUR CONTROL..... I KNOW you'd rather not hear it BUT PLEASE, for your own and your family's sake QUIT SMOKING .Talk with your Doctor about .There are a lot of products that might help.Pollution is bad enough without recreationally self- polluting. You are PRIME for a heart attack as it is. The CHECK LIST IS: I) MALE 2) over 50 3) SMOKER 4) SUDDEN BURSTS OF STRENUOUS EXERCISE(snow shoveling or bicycling or racketball) 5) SEDENTARY WORK 6) FAMILY HISTORY OF HEART ATTACK OR STROKE. PLEASE. CHECK THIS OUT WITH YOUR DOCTOR!

Moritz Gillmair
Moritz Gillmair4 years ago


Rita White
Rita White4 years ago


Matilda H.
Past Member 4 years ago

That's so sad.

Chris Ray
Chris R.4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Carol Fyfe-Wilson

Ban gas consuming vehicles in favor of electric powered. Clean air benefits all, the pedestrian and the cyclist.

Monica D.
Monica D.4 years ago

I think that cycling is an important part of sustainable transport - we need to get a lot of people cycling to work, to school, and to other events. If enough people got out of their cars and onto bikes, perhaps the air would be better ...