Toronto bike couriers have long been accustomed to fighting for our tiny space on congested roads, but more and more we find ourselves fighting for a tiny breath of decent air, too.
In traffic we spot the dangers and find the quickest and safest routes, but poor air quality is everywhere. If there were safe spots of quality air downtown, couriers would definitely find them, but the overwhelming volume of motor vehicle traffic makes that an increasingly impossible task.
So far this summer the city has issued 35 smog alerts, urging residents "to avoid exposure to vehicle exhaust fumes" and to "avoid strenuous exercise."
But for couriers who work on commission without benefits, there are no options. We must ride through the thick smog, day after day, year after year, against the best medical advice. We are chronically exposed to high doses of dangerously polluted air for extended periods, and our lungs have little opportunity to recover.
Bicycle messengers are at risk for the most serious consequences of poor air quality. We spend up to nine hours a day less than 10 feet from exhaust pipes, working in the concrete canyons of downtown, where the concentration of particulates in smog is much higher than in residential neighbourhoods.
Our work involves vigorous physical activity requiring a high rate of breathing and great intake of air. As a result, bike couriers receive large doses of pollution at great concentrations and frequency.
After a day in the smog, our bodies smell not of sweat but of car exhaust, and our ears and noses are filled with black soot.
Few couriers will escape the health effects of bad air.
On June 16, after 18 years on the road, 58-year-old veteran messenger Robert "Biker Bob" Byers delivered his last package of the day to 20 Queen West. As he left the building, he keeled over and died of what was reported to be a massive heart attack.
Byers suffered from a number of long-standing ailments, most of which fit the classic profile of diseases caused by prolonged exposure to smog.
The fact that he'd worked through a 12-day-long smog alert likely puts his death among the 5,800 premature smog-exacerbated casualties that the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) now forecasts for our province in 2005.
When the canary dies in the coal mine, a quick reaction ensues to save lives, but Byers's death has gone largely unnoticed.
The city's medical officer of health last week called for a coroner's inquest into heat-related deaths. This should be expanded to include smog-related deaths like Biker Bob's.
Couriers have been ringing alarm bells about smog since 99, when, in response to the dangers of declining air quality, the Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition prepared a comprehensive document tabled at city council entitled Choking Us To Death - The Air Pollution Crisis And Its Effects On Bicycle Couriers. The report noted that tiny diesel fuel particles that embed themselves deep in the lungs have been known to cause cancer.
As a result, city council passed a motion in principle "that free transit be available on air quality advisory days" and "that a policy restricting car use be established." Unfortunately, council did not follow through. Free transit never happened, and the crisis has deepened.
Likening messengers to coal mine canaries, the Hoof and Cycle report warned the rest of the population to take the smog problem seriously when bike couriers start dropping in the street. That time may well have arrived.
Last month, Dr. Greg Flynn, president of the OMA, said, "The impact polluted air is having on the health of Ontarians is dramatically worse than we had initially estimated. We are paying the price for poor air quality with our lives, and if we don't take action immediately the cost will continue to rise significantly."
The media often refer to couriers as kamikazes because of our vulnerability to serious injury from larger and more dangerous vehicles, but if all levels of government continue to ignore our vulnerability to lethal air quality, we will be kamikaze canaries.
Joe Hendry is co-author of Choking Us to Death.