How can cyclists protect themselves against air pollution?

A female cyclist attempts to protect herself from air pollution. Image: Getty.

The popularity of cycling in London continues to rise: according to statistics published by Transport for London (TfL), the number of journeys made by bicycle in London grew by 5 per cent in 2018. The transport agency has attributed the upwards trend in cycling to its investment in cycling infrastructure, not least the seven Cycle Superhighways and 12 Cycle Quietways the city now boasts.

Cycling is widely reported to result in health benefits for participants, and cyclists can expect to achieve improvements in both their physical and mental health as a result of switching from public transport or car to a bike. But with air pollution levels remaining stubbornly high across London, should cyclists be concerned that the health benefits they achieve as a result of cycling are actually being outweighed by the dangers posed by increased exposure to air pollution? 

Unlike during the Great Smog of 1952, air pollution today is often invisible to the naked eye. Nonetheless, London breached the European and UK air quality annual limit on 18  March when, for the 36 time this year, levels of pollution particles recorded at a measuring post exceeded the agreed limit. (EU rules allow 35 breaches a year.) Whilst this is a marked improvement on 2018 when the annual limit was broken on the 5 January, it reminds us of the risk that air pollution continues to pose to Londoners today. 

The rise of respirator masks

Anyone who has cycled or walked along one of London's cycle paths in recent years is likely to have seen someone resembling Darth Vader cycling towards them. Protection masks, which are becoming increasingly popular amongst the cycling community, range from cotton surgical masks to respirators with in-built air filtration systems that cover a significant part of the cyclist’s face. 

But do masks actually work and are they worth the investment? 

Cotton masks categorically do not protect wearers against the inhalation of airborne particles. Whilst they can be somewhat effective in protecting against the spread of illnesses, they will not protect a cyclist from air pollution. 

Respirator cycling masks, which range in price from £25 to over £50, are a more sophisticated option. “N99” respirators are said to remove up to 99 per cent of airborne particles from inhaled air. But the particles that cause air pollution today are extremely small, which makes it particularly challenging for respirators to effectively block them from entering the human body. 

Another complicating factor is the fit of the respirator against the human face. Studies have concluded that under “perfect” conditions respirators do effectively filter pollution out of inhaled air. However, when actually fitted to a human face, respirators are often not able to form an effective seal against skin, which ultimately renders them useless. Features such as facial hair and short noses make is particularly challenging for a seal to form. 

The findings of studies into the effectiveness of respirator cycling masks are somewhat mixed – but point to the ineffectiveness of current designs. 


So what can cyclists do to protect themselves? 

The best intervention a cyclist can make to reduce their exposure to air pollution is to avoid the most polluted streets and roads. TfL’s Quietways are an easy way for cyclists to identify the less busy and less polluted roads (although TfL has announced it will be merging the Quietway and Cycle Superhighway networks into a single Cycleways cycle network during summer 2019). 

Cyclists may also consider reducing their cycling speed to reduce their inhalation of airborne particles. The faster and deeper we breathe in polluted air, the more pollutants are delivered to our lungs. Therefore slowing down and reducing their amount of exertion will go some way to protecting cyclists from air pollution. 

Finally, cyclists should check air quality forecasts and make informed decisions regarding their chosen mode of transport on a particular day. TfL provides daily forecasts on its website. 

So should cyclists stop cycling all together? In a word, no. Although there is currently not an effective way to stop yourself from inhaling air pollution whilst cycling, scientists have concluded that the physical and mental health benefits of cycling continue to outweigh the dangers posed by exposure to air pollution. Cycling remains a healthy method of transport for Londoners. 

If you are a cyclist who is concerned about your exposure to air pollution and you are considering investing in a respirator mask, be aware that research suggests they will not protect you effectively. Instead you may want to consider donating the money you would have spent on a respirator to a charity such as Trees for Cities, whose mission is to transform urban areas by creating Urban Forests.

 
 
 
 

Meet Abu Dhabi’s blockchain and decentralisation wunderkind

“All industries are the same – you have to stay away from the people who have a propensity toward jargon and toward trying to create their little islands of expertise. Instead, just think about what a company actually does – there’s no need to complicate it.”

If ever a quote summed up 2020 and the world’s hyper-fast transformation into a more practical approach to employees working from home and the realisation that the building blocks of technology are now the building blocks of society, it’s this wisdom from Derick Smith, founder and CEO of AmmbrTech Limited.

The company, founded in Luxembourg in 2016, has now moved its headquarters to Abu Dhabi, which has been in the news a lot lately for attracting globally enduring technology companies many of which have been snapped up by the likes of Uber and Amazon.

Smith, who opened his first company at the age of 19, says one of the reasons for the move was the UAE’s forward thinking: “I was monitoring the evolution of crypto and blockchain for some years, and as things started to evolve, Abu Dhabi Global Market caught my eye. They have some really elegant, well-thought-out crypto regulations being developed in their jurisdiction,” he explains.

Blockchain in Abu Dhabi

The UAE is the seventh country that Smith, originally from South Africa, has opened up a company in and he says it’s been the best in terms of both infrastructure and regulations.

The UAE has been by far the easiest to do business in so many ways,” says Smith. “Working with Hub71 was absolutely sterling – the support, the speed at which things happen. It was so smooth. The visas, the willingness of people to talk to you, have meetings, assist you – all of that was brilliant.

“The office was ready the day we landed. And to be honest, they’re getting better all the time so someone joining Abu Dhabi’s tech or AI and blockchain scene now would find it even easier.”

AmmbrTech’s offering was intriguing pre-Covid-19, but now with digital transformation and decentralisation at the forefront of most companies’ minds, the move to a country that has a push to create new technology as part of its government’s goals from now until 2030 seems a smart one.

The company’s remit is twofold: firstly, to provide broadband to underserved countries and secondly, developing an edge-cloud infrastructure that’s highly inclusive of local communities and businesses. And it deploys a raft of leading technology, including AI and blockchain to do it.

Smith explains: “We want to get broadband in the hands of people who are underserved today – which is pretty much half the planet – as we enter new markets, if we come across customers or areas where there’s no broadband, we can quickly scale it out.

Edge-cloud solutions

“Regarding the edge-cloud, it’s very much built around the principle of self-sovereign digital identity. Where your identity – the private key that manages your credentials rests with you – our entire organisation is built around those principles and operates on them. We’re able to build hyper-local markets and shorter supply chains. And that’s the big lesson from Covid – you’ve got to shorten the supply chain and become more self-sufficient. The edge-cloud infrastructure and decentralised marketplace allows us to achieve greater diversity of marketplaces, cultures and localities,” says Smith.

And that commitment to diversity is something that both the Abu Dhabi government and AmmbrTech share, he summarises: “Abu Dhabi is doing an exceptionally good job attracting talented people to come here and make sure a lot is happening in the tech scene. The team at Hub71 went above and beyond to introduce us to corporates and decision-makers and to the help us network. The dialogue is there if you want to pick it up, it’s up to you.”