Air pollution is one of the leading environmental risk factors for people’s health. A recent report from the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Paediatrics and Child Health suggested that it contributes to around 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK. One of the main sources of air pollution in cities is transport and a shift from cars, motorbikes and buses to active travel would help to reduce emissions. However, people who walk or cycle in such environments will inhale more pollution, which could be detrimental to their health.
Researchers from CEDAR, a partnership between the Universities of Cambridge and East Anglia, and the Medical Research Council, used computer simulations to compare the risks and benefits for different levels of intensity and duration of active travel and of air pollution in different locations around the world. Using this data, the researchers calculated that in practical terms, air pollution risks will not negate the health benefits of active travel in the vast majority of urban areas worldwide. Only 1% of cities in the World Health Organization’s Ambient Air Pollution Database had pollution levels high enough that the risks of air pollution could start to overcome the benefits of physical activity after half an hour of cycling every day.
Dr Marko Tainio from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, who led the study, says: “Our model indicates that in London health benefits of active travel always outweigh the risk from pollution. Even in Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world – with pollution levels ten times those in London – people would need to cycle over five hours per week before the pollution risks outweigh the health benefits".
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