Scientists from Columbia University are using innovative tools to study the effect of vehicle exhaust on cyclists.
While most cyclists are used to simply shrugging off a blast of exhaust fumes en route, a growing body of research is suggesting that this exposure can have short and long-term health consequences. Columbia University researchers are using state-of-the-art personal monitoring devices to find out exactly how much of an impact air pollution has on the health of cyclists.
In a new joint study, scientists from the Mailman School of Public Health and the Lamont-Doherty School Observatory have equipped cyclists with skintight biometric shirts, which track minute-by-minute health and air pollution data. The mesh vests carry air pollution monitors, a location tracking system linked to a GPS, and a blood pressure monitor, a combination that can track how exposure to pollution affects the heart and lungs of each rider.
An environmental health scientist from Columbia University, Darby Jack, says: “We’re really trying to quantify the health impacts of commuting by bicycle in a dense urban setting”.
How does air pollution affect us?
Health officials from New York estimate that as much as 2000 people suffer premature death and that there are more than 6000 hospital visits due to air pollution exposure, with the young and old being the most in danger.
Arden Pope, a professor of economics and an epidemiologist from Brigham Young University, who is not involved in the Columbia University study, says: “We have internal combustion engines that emit particles, we put them out a tailpipe, and then we drive along our sidewalks. And we sort of emit this stuff right into our breathing zones!”
Fine particles made from black carbon, nitrogen oxide, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) spew out of tailpipes, are inhaled and end up accumulating in the lungs. Research has shown that short-term exposure to these particles can trigger heart attacks and that long-term exposure increases the risk of developing lung and heart disease significantly.
Does exercise reduce the effect?
During exercise, the volume of air that enters the lungs is increased by three or four times, which amplifies the effect of pollution.
However, as recent studies suggest, the health benefits of exercise still outweigh the damaging effect of pollution in a vast majority of settings, depending on the amount of exposure to air pollution in your urban setting.
The quality of air fluctuates throughout urban settings, as does the amount of physical exertion from each individual, so it is important to be aware of both factors to find the cleanest route for exercise.
How to optimize a bike route?
With over 1 million cyclists in New York, research is ongoing to develop handy apps and tools to offer the safest and cleanest routes for exercise.
While studies are still in their infancy, Darby Jack and his team are working hard to prove to themselves and their funders that both health and air pollution data can be collected at simultaneously, and in real-time.
The team is currently working with 30 cyclists, but projects expansion to hundreds of cyclists from all corners of New York City to assist them with their research. Paul Steely White, the executive director of New York’s Transportation Alternatives, explains that safety and pollution trends are equally important to monitor, and he is carefully monitoring the developments.