I DO WORRY ABOUT THE AIR I’M BREATHING WHEN I’M IN LONDON
Much of my working life is spent in London and I cycle everywhere. It’s a fast, convenient way to get around, but I do worry about the air I’m breathing. When it comes to air pollution, London comes out badly. So what is the best way to get around a busy city if you want to minimise your exposure? Walking, driving, cycling, or the Underground?
The story around air pollution is confusing. Six years ago I bought a diesel car. I’d read that diesel produces less carbon dioxide per mile than petrol, so I thought I was doing my bit for the environment. It turns out that I’ve been contributing to the nearly 40,000 premature deaths that happen every year in the UK as a result of air pollution. This is more than 20 times the number of people that die in road accidents and is only exceeded by the 80,000 who die every year as a result of smoking.
The trouble with diesel is that it produces a lot of nitrous oxide, which irritates the lungs, and ozone, which is also bad for the lungs. Ozone is formed when nitrous oxides and other volatile organic compounds react with sunlight, so levels can get spectacularly high during the summer. As well as these gases, diesel engines produce lots of tiny specks of particulate matter (PM). These specks are so small that they can penetrate deep into your lungs, carrying with them a host of unburnt combustion components. These in turn trigger reactions that damage your blood vessel walls, contributing to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s. So when I’m cycling around London I’m inhaling all this stuff, which has to be bad for me. But how bad is bad?
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