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Cycling through air pollution is making my asthma worse

Harriet cycles to work every day, but the air pollution affects her asthma. She shares her story.

Harriet with medal

Cycling seems to have always been a part of my life in some form, from renting bikes on our family holidays to my mum making me cycle to secondary school every day – even in the snow!

Likewise, for as long as I can remember, I’ve known I have asthma. When I was a child I suffered a lot with chest infections and went into hospital with pneumonia twice.

I caught every cold going

I remember spending most winters with a hacking cough. It carried on through my teenage years, and I caught every cold going at university! Things have got a lot easier to manage since then. Every now and then my asthma flares up when I least expect it. A few years ago the pollen was very high and every time I went for a run, I’d come back wheezing and struggling to breathe.

I started cycling to work about 2 years ago when I moved to London. On most days I love it - it’s cheaper, and I feel a lot less guilty about not going to the gym! I also really enjoy being part of the community of cyclists in London. Most of my route is on a cycle superhighway and there are normally another 15 people around me. It makes me feel a lot safer and provides some good company on cold and rainy days. 

The results shocked me

One thing that I really don’t enjoy about my daily cycle is the amount of pollution I breathe in. Particularly when I’m stuck behind old diesel buses or lorries. My cycle route takes me through several high streets in south London. I was able to borrow a pollution monitor and look at how much pollution I was being exposed to. The results shocked me.

harriet's pollution graph

Anything over 10 is above the level that the World Health Organisation say is safe for us to breathe. As a result, I tried to cycle a “cleaner route” that took me via the river, but actually ended up only slightly lowering the amount of pollution I breathed in.

There aren’t many options in London to ride without using busy roads, which is why I strongly believe we need to get dirty vehicles off the roads altogether.

Sinus infections

About a year ago, I found I was getting a lot of sinus infections. My GP and a respiratory specialist said this was likely to be linked to my asthma and my airways being irritated by tiny pollution particles.

Most days I able to manage this with inhalers, a steroid spray and nasal wash, but on some days when the pollution is really high I definitely feel it more.

RideLondon was amazing

2 years ago, I rode Ride 100 for Asthma + Lung UK. It was a great day and amazing to cycle along traffic-free roads. Everyone told me I’d surprise myself how quickly I’d cycle it, but I didn’t really believe them. But you really do! Without the traffic it’s amazing how much easier it is to cycle and build up a pace.

I’d definitely recommend getting your friends and family to support you along the route – all the cheering from Asthma + Lung UK supporters and my loved ones really kept me going. Oh, and the peanut butter sandwiches I ate along the way!

Cities that work for everyone

Ride 100 really reminded me how much cars dominate our roads and how much as pedestrians and cyclists we have adapted to this. Imagine how peaceful, clean and safe our roads could be without vehicles? With the changes that have started to happen in London, I don’t think we’re that far from having to imagine this.

What I hope is that more and more people will use their voices to fight for a city that works for everyone not just for vehicles. I hope that one day I won’t have to take my inhaler every time I cycle.

Do you cycle? Do you want to do something about air pollution? Help us do more by signing up to RideLondon-Surrey 100 this July.

Be a clean air hero

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9 January 2018