Pollution Puts Athletes At Risk


by Gina Carroll

I am on a new fitness kick and as such, my daughter has convinced me to start taking spinning classes. I prefer to exercise outdoors, but I am finding that I love cycling class. During a recent class, my lungs had an unexpected encounter. On this typical evening, I entered my cycling class, prepped and mounted my bike. The instructor is a good leader, with a solid workout plan. She chooses great music, and she even weaves in music videos on the overhead screen for the perfect combination of motivation and distraction. I am happy. The perfect workout begins…

Five minutes into the warm-up, a woman (who I shall henceforth refer to as Smelly Woman) comes in. Of all the empty bikes at her disposal, she chooses the one right next to me. I am already in a zone of concentration. So I don’t even notice Smelly Woman at first. She does not register in my consciousness… that is, until her perfume makes its way over to me. And now I am surrounded by it. In the context of another setting, like the cosmetic counter of a department store, this scent might have been pleasant. But here, it is not. And normally I am oblivious to another person’s perfume. I usually have no such sensitivities.

Aside from the annoyance (who douses themselves with perfume before an exercise class?), I am surprised to find that I am starting to get congested. I have to keep clearing my throat and swallowing. Pretty soon, I am having unusual difficulty catching my breath… unusual even for an exercise class. I realize that I am having a mild allergic reaction to the scent of Smelly Woman.

I happen to be taking this class with my daughter, who has asthma. She is on the bike on the other side of me. I am increasingly afraid that the scent is going to reach her. If it does, it will be all over for her. She is very sensitive to perfume. If this perfume reaches her, as it has reached me, she will start to wheeze, cough and have difficulty breathing.

In no time, she’ll be in search of her inhaler, which is all the way upstairs in her locker, but I don’t want to bring Smelly Woman to my daughter’s attention and plant a seed of worry. She is churning away on her bike and totally consumed in the workout. So I suffer in silence and watch her for signs of distress. Thankfully, they never come. Somehow, she escapes the perfume invasion and has an enjoyable workout, unlike her mother.

Pollution (not only from perfume but also from more toxic substances) can have an enormous effect on exercise performance, and not just for those with asthma and allergies. Since athletes and active people take in much more air than the average (more sedentary) person, they are more adversely impacted by high levels of pollution. This is at the root of considerable concern surrounding the upcoming summer Olympics in London.

London has the worst air quality of any capital city in Europe for both particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. Its nitrogen dioxide levels (the toxin responsible for ozone) are around the same as Beijing’s. And though the Chinese capital took emergency action to cut pollution by stringently restricting traffic when it hosted the Olympics four years ago, so far there’s no indication that London intends  to do the same.

London is already a health hazard in regards to pollution. The pollution level right now is at an all time high. As the Olympics approach, with its estimated 11 million visitors and 3 million extra car trips on the busiest day alone, Olympic athletes will likely find the dirty air to be a challenge. Even athletes who have no respiratory sensitivities may find their athletic performances marred by pulmonary irritation, chest pain and decreased lung capacity. Not only are they at risk of slower running times and less record-breaking performances, they could very well fall ill and be unable to compete. Athletes who have asthma should come prepared for the worst.

The situation in London really highlights the worldwide mess we’ve made for ourselves. At a time when American’s push to be more active and less sedentary — to get out and get into shape — many of us who live in polluted cities find ourselves at greater risk of respiratory distress when we exercise. It’s a sad and unfortunate irony. We are forced to weigh the benefits and costs of outdoor exercise to our overall health.

On my way to the gym today, the freeway marquee shows an ozone warning – today is a Yellow day in Houston — moderately unhealthy. The logical conclusion is to exercise indoors at my spinning class. But then, there’s Smelly Woman polluting my indoor air (see a full discussion of indoor air pollution here and here). I call my daughter, who is meeting me, and remind her to bring her inhaler to class.

Here are tips on exercising outdoors.

Please take action with Moms Clean Air Force.


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Photo credit: AskJeeves


Abbe A.
Azaima A5 years ago


Katherine Wright
Katherine Wright5 years ago

Pollution puts everyone at risk.......humans and animals alike.

Angela N.
Angela N5 years ago

thank you =]

Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

Would it help any for the Olympic committee to try to find out exactly where the oxides of nitrogen and the particulates are coming from and then try to work with the source(s) to cut down on the problem. You have to pay for what you get these days, with big business so narrowly focused on maximizing the bottom line for their stockholders. But buying some clean air for the athletes would certainly be a great boon for everyone else who has occasion to go to London. Maybe some Londoners would be willing to chip in something towards the effort.

Elaine A.
Elaine Al Meqdad5 years ago

Athletes....It puts everyone at risk, whether your running or walking. If you are out in it, you are inhaling the same garbage

Arild Warud

Thanks for the info.

Beth K.
.5 years ago

Wow Philip, ignorant and wrong, wrong, wrong. The perfume industry is unregulated, and they do not have to disclose ingredients. An independent lab analyzed Calvin Klien's "Eternity", and found, of the over 400 ingredients, 38 toxins, and 120 suspected carcinogins.

I once almost passed out in an elevator with a woman wearing too much perfume, after only one floor. Get your head out of your sexist sandpile.

Karen Murray
Karen Murray5 years ago

...ran over the doggone comment form....
Most serious performing choruses BAN perfume because so many people's breathing is affected by it. Athletes need our wind just as much. If you really think other people ask you to leave the perfume at home just to bag on you, get over yourself. Is your vanity really more important than other people's comfort and respiratory survival??

Karen Murray
Karen Murray5 years ago

Speaking as someone in butt-kicking condition (I am 57, have been pumping heavy iron for 30 years, consider a four-mile hill run a minimum outdoor workout and can sled-press over seven hundred pounds on plate loaded equipment) I just have to take issue with anyone who thinks this writer's breathing suffered only because she was out of condition.

In absolute peak shape, I am still hit right between the eyes by heavy perfume -- even passing the front of a department store, where they always put the perfume counter, kicked it off in me just this afternoon on the way to a mall movie theater. My sinuses immediately start to ache and my head can pound for a couple hours afterward. I can easily imagine asthmatics being set off. You don't want to know how many times I have attempted to get this across to idiot women in locker rooms and gym staff (one birdbrained woman reeking of Eau De Jungle Passion called me a lesbian, as if it were an insult, because I asked her not to make me breathe her bottled feminine identity).

The majority of commercial scents contain toxic and even carcinogenic substances. It is no surprise that sensitive people react to them, sometimes dramatically. http://www.ourlittleplace.com/perfume.html My own gynecologist is sensitive and implores her patients to leave the perfume at home -- and some of them still ignore her or protest as she blows her nose that they only put on "a little!" -- as if they just couldn't go two hours without it.

Most serious

sheri denato
Past Member 5 years ago

thanks for sharing!