Choking us to death. Is science finally catching up?

Twelve years ago Toronto bike messengers warned of the dangers of smog to our health in “Choking us to death: The Air Pollution Crisis and Its Effects on Bicycle Couriers.”

Couriers pointed to a unique vulnerability due to exposure to both the ground-level ozone and particulate matter present in smog and to exposure to peek levels of pollution together with long-term exposure to non peak levels.

“Bicycle couriers work all day, year round in the midst of smog. Our lungs have minimal opportunity to recover from the effects of polluted air. We are chronically exposed to high doses of dangerously polluted air for long term, extended periods of time.”

The athletic nature of the profession requires messengers to “spend more time outdoors, breathe faster and engage in vigorous physical activity.”

This danger to couriers is exacerbated by the location of the athletic activity which means that a bike courier’s “lungs are not more than about 10 feet from an exhaust pipe for most of the day.”

Since the release of “Choking us to death,” many studies have confirmed couriers’ concerns.

In 2007, the New York Times pointed to studies that showed particulates posed a strong health hazard to athletes. The key medical piece of advice from the article:

“Still, virtually every expert interviewed said that Americans should not stop exercising outdoors. Rather they suggested that exercisers should keep their distance from exhaust-spewing cars and check air-quality forecasts before venturing out.”

In other words don’t exercise on bad air days or near traffic.

The Times highlighted  the long-term impacts:

“And there are long-term consequences. A study that used the mass of data included in the Women’s Health Initiative found that women who lived in communities with relatively high levels of air pollution in the forms of tiny particles — a k a soot — were far more likely to die because of heart attacks than women who lived in cleaner air. Results were published in February in The New England Journal of Medicine.”

It’s not just the heart that’s at risk from smog components. While particulates damage the heart, it’s ozone damages the lungs. A recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine  directly attributes a significant increase in respiratory deaths to long-term exposure to ground-level ozone..

The study found that every increase of 10 parts per billion (ppb) in average ozone concentrations was associated with about a 4% increase in dying from respiratory causes. In cities such as New York and Washington, it means a 25% increased risk of respiratory death and up to 50% increased risk in heavily polluted cities such as Los Angeles.

And now comes a new study that again links cycling in high traffic roads to heart risks:

“Our findings suggest that short-term exposure to traffic may have a significant impact on cardiac autonomic function in healthy adults,” the scientists from Health Canada, Environment Canada and the University of Ottawa wrote in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Bike messengers all over the world are familiar with the increased risk of death. When it comes to pollution couriers often refers to themselves as the canaries in the coal mine. In Toronto, on June 16, 2005, after 18 years on the road, 58-year-old veteran messenger Robert “Biker Bob” Byers, collapsed and died of what was reported to be a massive heart attack. He had just delivered his last package of the day.

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) forecasted for the province that year.

For twelve years governments have failed to act on courier concerns about smog but now that science has finally proven these concerns, messengers are hoping that it’s not too late.

For more information read “Choking us to death: The Air Pollution Crisis and Its Effects on Bicycle Couriers.”

Exhaust-ing ride for cyclists: Air pollutants trigger heart risk – Environmental Health News, July 6, 2011

Long-Term Ozone Exposure and Mortality – New England Journal of Medicine , March 12, 2009

Study links smog exposure to premature death – New York Times, March 12, 2009

Ozone causes 20% of lung deaths, study suggests –  Toronto Star, March 11, 2009


For Athletes, an Invisible Traffic Hazard – New York Times, July 12, 2007


This job could kill – NOW Magazine, July 21, 2005

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