Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Urban biking may hurt bicyclists' lungs, study finds

September 27, 2011 - 03:10 PM
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Poor lungs. (Photo: flickr/slocountybicyclecoalition)

Don't breathe easy yet, D.C. bicyclists. As wonderful as Capital Bikeshare's birthday was and the news that more people biked to work last year, there's some bad news on the horizon — biking in dense, urban cities may actually hurt your health in some ways.

Why? Pollution. Soot. Black carbon. New research from the London School of Medicine was presented at the European Respiratory Society's Annual Congress in Amsterdam on September 25.

Here's the bad news, according to the European Lung Foundation:

...cyclists inhale more black carbon than pedestrians, which may cause damage to the lungs.

The combustion of fossil fuels results in the generation of large numbers of inhalable particles of soot (black carbon). There is increasing evidence that inhalation of black carbon particles is associated with a wide range of health effects - including heart attacks and reduced lung function.

The study examined the amount of black carbon in bicyclists and pedestrians in London and found "cyclists have 2.3-times more black carbon in their lungs when compared with pedestrians." Yeesh. One of the researchers said that all the added black carbon may be due to the fact that "cyclists breathe more deeply and at a quicker rate than pedestrians while in closer proximity to exhaust fumes, which could increase the number of airborne particles penetrating the lungs."

All those cars are bad for the air and for us, I guess.

Then again, this study occurred in Europe. Might American bicyclists' lungs fare better in our dense cities? There's no clear, direct sign to say that any bike commuters in the District should worry, but more study is needed. This finding should also, probably, be weighed against all the evidence about the health benefits that regular biking does confer. What's a bit of black carbon in the lungs compared to that, right? Maybe?

Hat tip to the Atlantic Cities for this bleak bit of transit news.

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