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Air pollution: should we all start wearing masks?

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People on bikes absorb four to nine times more fine dust particles than people in cars. On a bike, you’re also more exposed to other pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (Belgian Science Policy, 2011). Faced with this observation, should we all start wearing air masks for pollution protection?

When you go catch some air on a bike, you often get more than you asked for: sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, diesel particulate matter, ... To counteract these unwelcome additions, and to reduce their respiratory and cardio-vascular risks, some cyclists choose to wear air masks.

Are air masks effective?

Made of activated charcoal or (more efficient) electrostatic filters, air masks protect against certain allergens, pollutants, and many unpleasant odours. But then again: simply wearing a fabric in front of your mouth already absorbs up to 20% of the dust particles about three microns in diameter.

However, “we must not delude ourselves: their effectiveness is very relative,” declared Isabelle Lesens at the Velo-city congress in 2003. No study worthy of the name has yet proved the effectiveness of these masks in absorbing fine and ultra-fine particles, which pose the number one health problem. Even the masks worn by the US Olympic cyclist team at the 2008 Beijing Games could not prove the efficiency of mouth masks in reducing the absorption of ultra-fine particles. ”In truth,” said Gilles Faravel of mask production company Res-Pro, anti-pollution masks “protect more from odours than from diesel microparticles.”

Besides this inefficiency in regard to the most dangerous particles, wearing a mouth mask makes it harder to breathe easily. Wearing a mask you must inhale deeper and, doing so, you absorb even more particles...

Furthermore, sporting this accessory gives bike riding a negative image, confirming the stereotype that it is dangerous to drive a bike.. For Luc Goffinet, director of the GRACQ cyclists’ association, “the debate about wearing air masks is a false debate, because the real problem is the quality of the air we all breathe. Therefore, action must be taken at the level of mobility and environmental policies.”

Better solutions

There exist several ways for to breathe cleaner air when riding a bike. Keeping an easier pace and adapting your itineraries are the most efficient.

Ride at an easier pace

“Even when driving in polluted conditions, the health benefits of cycling easily outweigh the side effects,” says dr. Patrick Le May at the CIAMT. “Cycling improves cardiac, respiratory, and muscular abilities.” So no need for panic. Besides, there exist many tricks to limit the effects of air pollution on our health: pedalling at a lighter pace to avoid hyperventilation and inhaling through the nose, to let your mucous membranes fully do their filtering jobs.

Adapt your itineraries

Cyclists and motorists are subject to the same levels of pollution. When it comes to inhaling particles, cyclists are at a disadvantage as they breathe at a faster pace and take deeper breaths. Several studies have shown that the use of tailored cycling facilities (more remote from motorised traffic), reduces the amount of inhaled particles (Science for Environment Policy, 2014). A precise map of the air quality in Antwerp was developed: researchers roamed the city and analysed the content of fine particles at different locations. The effects of distance between the automotive flow and cycling facilities is a well-established fact (in order of preference: bicycle lanes, bus/taxi lanes, road markings). A 2009 Airparif study shows that pollution exposure is, on average, two times lower on a separate bike lanes than in motorized traffic, and 30% lower on bus lanes.

More comfortable itineraries, farther away from heavy traffic, can thus contribute heavily to air quality, and might be well worth the extra mile.

Through developing personalised solutions that facilitate and encourage people to transition to cycling, the non-profit organisation Pro Velo contributes to a higher quality of life.