Avoiding the Fumes: A Green but Unhealthy Commute

(Paco Ayala, photoxpress)

About five years ago I spoke to a woman who was concerned about the risks of her boyfriend’s bicycle commute to work in one of the most progressive cities in the country – Portland, OR.  I loved that we lived in a city that promoted green commuting by installing bike lanes and mapping out preferred routes.  But the reason we were talking was that his cycling among the cars was taking a toll on his health.  A nonsmoker, he was beginning to suffer from a hacking cough possibly brought on from breathing exhaust fumes during his commute.

She asked me what he might be able to do to protect his health and I suggested that he wear a respirator to reduce his exposure to toxic particles and fumes.  She laughed and replied that he’d be more likely to just tough it out.

I was reminded of this exchange when I read a recent article by a Belgian researcher, Dr. Int Panis1.  His research team determined that bicyclists inhaled a greater volume of air and thus exhaust during their commute than people driving their cars.  And bicyclists were more likely to take longer to complete the journey than drivers, resulting in exposure to exhaust for a longer period of time.  The combination of these and other factors resulted in a 5 to 9 times greater inhalation of exhaust particles by bicyclists than car drivers during their commute.

It’s a shame that the pioneers of greening our commute are the most highly exposed to toxic exhaust, which has been linked to increased cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancer.  It is my hope that we will soon shift to vehicles and transit modes that are much less polluting, making daily trips along our roadways less dangerous to our health.

(Jean Cliclac, photoxpress)

In the meantime, following these strategies could reduce your exposure if your commute or exercise routine leaves you running, walking, or bicycling in a cloud of traffic exhaust:

  • Pick a less-traveled route: avoid primary traffic arteries by taking side roads or heading through the park where possible.
  • Shift your timing away from peak commute hours: air quality is best before the morning commute.
  • And if you can’t steer clear of it, considering braving the Darth Vader look by wearing a respirator that filters both fine particles (<2.5 microns) and fumes (carbon filter).  Note that respirators aren’t effective for guys with beards.

1Int Panis, L., B. de Geus, G. Vandenbulcke, H. Willems, B. Degraeuwe, N. Bleux, V. Mishra, I. Thomas, R. Meeusen (2010).  Exposure to particulate matter in traffic: A comparison of cyclists and car passengers.  Atmospheric Environment, Vol. 44:2263-2270.

One response to “Avoiding the Fumes: A Green but Unhealthy Commute”

  1. Thanks, Laurel, for a really thought-provoking post. I live in San Mateo in the Bay Area. A charming little town, it’s still heavily trafficked. I live in a walk-friendly neighborhood and hoof it to the cleaners, grocery store, bank, and library among other venues.

    Thank goodness I’ve been instinctively (it seems) doing my walking in off-peak times and on quiet side streets. The Darth Vader look is probably not in the cards…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: