Cycling and Air Pollution

Bicycling in UtahBy Lou Melini

I would like to respond to the Health article by Mr. Charles Pekow published in the April issue of Cycling Utah entitled Where Should You Ride to Avoid the Effects of Air Pollution. As a general statement, Mr. Pekow presented the readers a nice review of a study from Portland State University. In his analysis of the study there is still a lot to learn about the effects of air pollution to cyclists. However the article gives the impression to the readers of Cycling Utah that there are only negative effects by cycling in pollution.

Over the past several decades, there have been a number of longitudinal studies that looked at mortality of casual cyclists (commuters, etc) and compared them with non-cyclists. Unfortunately I have cleaned out a lot of stuff in my retirement so I only have a couple of articles. In the Environmental Health Perspectives (August 2010) an article entitled Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks, the authors data synthesis stated; “beneficial effects of increased physical activity are substantially larger (net 3-14 months of life gained) than the potential mortality effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (0.8-40 days lost) and the increase in traffic accidents (5-9 days lost).” The conclusions were; “On average, the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks relative to car driving for individuals shifting their mode of transport”. The authors also recognized and noted that if a larger portion of the population shifted transit options from a car to a bicycle “societal benefits are even larger because of a modest reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and traffic accidents”. References to the article total 2 full pages primarily form Europe. In the Archives of Internal Medicine (June of 200), a Danish study entitled “All -cause mortality associated with physical activity during leisure time, work, sports, and cycling to work” the authors looked at 30,000 participants aged 20-93 with a mean follow-up of 14.5 years. The results noted that bicycling to work decreased risk of mortality by approximately 40% compared with the sedentary controls.

I write this letter as I think I have noted that in the past several years the focus on the air quality in the Salt Lake Valley has significantly diminished number of potential commuter cyclists. We are told that cycle commuting is increasing, but the potential is much greater. I believe it was the local Salt Lake Tribune that reported higher rates of driving due to air pollution concerns, which obviously makes our air quality worse, further increasing concerns about our air quality and cycling. Certainly air quality is an important factor to cyclists especially if there are other risk factors. One has to assess individual risk and concerns that may mitigate the use of a bicycle. Overall however, casual cyclists such as commuters have benefits that outweigh the negative aspects as pointed out in other research. Mr. Pekow helpfully noted the specific research that needs to take place to help guide decision-making by cyclists in his article. My only criticism is that the article focused on one study, potentially dampening utilitarian use of bicycles that would be beneficial to individuals and society. It would be helpful to include other research that paints a larger and brighter picture for cyclists concerned about air pollution.

Thank you,

Louis Melini

Contributing writer to Cycling Utah

Bicycle Commuter Column.

Lou Melini is a long time contributor to Cycling Utah.

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