Should we cyclists be wearing pollution masks?

São Paulo air pollution: Photo credit: Simon Robinson

One of the smaller points of difference I noticed when I moved to São Paulo was that I did not see any cyclists wearing pollution masks, to protect themselves from traffic fumes. I always wore one of these when I cycled in London, and so I decided to do a little research before writing this article.

Respro anti-pollution mask

Cyclists are particularly at risk from pollution from diesel engines. The particles from these engines can be inhaled further down into the lungs than the larger particles decrease the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry and reduce lung function.

A friend sent me this photograph of two filters from a mask, one new and one which had been used. As you can see, they certainly trap a lot of dirt.

Not all cyclists wear them in the UK, and I asked a few cycling friends about their thoughts.  There were a number of reasons for not wearing them, such as them feeling that their cities were not polluted, or that they were uncomfortable. But quite a few people said that they felt that the masks did not work, so I set out to see if I could find any research on this.

Of those cyclists who said that they did wear masks, many felt that those made by Respro were the best. Their technology was originally developed for military uses, and their masks are designed to filter out two types of pollution; i) gases and vapours and ii) particulates such as road dust, diesel emissions etc.

If you have not seen one before, a pollution mask has two main components; filters and valves. A filter needs to be able to filter out the pollution while still allowing a person to carry out their physical exercise, and this is where added valves can increase the ‘breathability’ of the mask.

Anti-pollution mask with valves
As you can imagine, it is not necessarily a good idea to rely on research from a company which is using that research to sell its products. I did find one scientific study which actually found that the best filters are not those designed for cyclists, but which are sold by 3M for use in the construction industry. The study concluded that this type of mask could help reduce the risks of the effects of pollution on blood pressure and heart rate variability.

So there we are. In order to reduce the car pollution and amount of traffic here in São Paulo and of course many other cities, we need to get more people cycling. But we need to ensure the health as well as safety of cyclists, and perhaps we do need to consider encouraging people to protect themselves from traffic pollution. I would be interested to hear from Brazilian cyclists your thoughts on this. I would never want to tell anyone what to do, but I do feel that it would be interesting to start a conversation on this subject.

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