Sure, biking is good for you, but it's hard to see how when you're choking on someone's tailpipe.
If noxious air emissions send more asthma sufferers to hospitals every year, you've gotta wonder how much harm biking in traffic is actually doing to your respiratory system. Hard to say exactly, but we do know it's not good.
Should you get yourself one of those anti-pollution masks? Some claim they're useless, and others hail them as lifesavers. Whatever you decide, look for a carbon filter. And whenever possible, stay away from car jams. You're not just going to breathe easier but you're also less likely to get run over.
what the experts say
"When exercising, you're at greater risk because you're taking in more air and exposing yourself to more pollutants. Also, at higher levels of breathing you switch from nasal to mouth and nasal breathing, so you're bypassing the normal filtration mechanism of the nose. Long-term epidemiological studies show both respiratory and cardio effects. We did a study of plain paper masks. It's difficult to get a tight seal; they do block out particles, but not necessarily the [fumes]. You need a carbon filter mask for that. The best thing is to ride bike paths, away from traffic . Don't bike on smog-alert days. The air quality index is available on the Ministry of the Environment website. On hot days it's better to exercise early or late in the evening."
Bruce Urch , research assistant, Institute of Medical Science, U of T
"The closer you are to a busy intersection and the more lanes of traffic, the worse it is for you. So if you are able to stay off busy streets you're saving yourself health problems. The bottom line is that we need to get everyone out of their cars and convert to an active transportation culture. Everybody who gives up their car and gets on a bike is doing two things: reducing emissions and contributing to their health by exercising; both things make you healthier. You have to realize that every single time you take the lazy way out you're contributing to your own illnesses. Sitting in a car in traffic, you're breathing in as much as people out in the street. There's no escape from it. I would not rely on anti-pollution masks. They have not passed public health tests."
Eva Ligeti , executive director, Clean Air Partnership, Toronto
"Our masks have been tested by athletes in Beijing, where the pollution level is five times what it is in Chicago. They reported that they worked well. The current mask that works well with pollution is a honeycomb mask with a carbon filter. We are working on a variation for heavy exertion that will have exhalation valves. We have a user who bikes 17 miles from New Jersey to Philadelphia who says it makes a huge difference in his breathing. He says he doesnt have a cough, which was a problem before. It reduces exposure. I wont say it blocks it. Carbon captures the toxic fumes.
Adrien Bledstein , president, I Can Breathe, Chicago
"I would recommend taking magnesium , which is good for increasing lung capacity, and antioxidants are a good idea if you're exposed to a lot of pollutants. These would be green tea extract (catechins), vitamin C , vitamin E and selenium . Acupuncture can also be useful: when you want to increase the capacity of an organ, you want to increase the flow of chi to that organ, but the actual procedure or points would depend on the individual."
Mary MacDonald , naturopath, Toronto