Since I bike pretty much everywhere, I spend a fair bit of time sandwiched behind garbage trucks, city buses, and whatever other pollution-spewing monstrosities come my way. Just yesterday, for instance, a delivery truck pinned me in between the curb and a lane of fast-moving traffic. Since I'm working on a magazine story about the growing list of health risks associated with air pollution, I couldn't help but ponder the diesel fumes wafting my way from the truck's exhaust pipe. Should I just keep gulping the stuff down? Try to back up a few feet? Break the law and make for the sidewalk?
Plenty of scientists and doctors have been telling me that there's no doubt air pollution can do a number on my heart and lungs. They have conducted literally thousands of studies that make that point. The reassuring thing, they tell me, is that the risk is relatively small for any single individual. OK, good. Then from the other corner of their mouths they usually whisper: Umm, by the way, avoid exercising outdoors near traffic if you can. And, oh, yes, bicycling in heavy city traffic is probably one of the best ways you can up your air pollution exposure.
Now that I don't want to hear. I love biking and exercising outside in general, and I'm not going to stop. I savor the sun, the exercise, and whatever little dose of nature I can get in the city. I try not to ignore the possibility of getting mashed to a pulp by a careless driver and figure that since I eat pretty well, don't smoke, and exercise regularly, my lungs and heart should be fine despite the fumes. What gave me pause last morning, as I was lodged behind that truck, was a newer line of air pollution research that hits where it really hurts.
Researchers are finding that air pollution can damage sperm--and the charming little offspring those sperm could well grow into. The science is preliminary, having been conducted in mice rather than men, but it's still troubling. Wired looks more closely at how industrial air pollution mucked with the genetic code of the mice. And a few recent studies summarized at Science Daily suggest that air pollution may shrink the size of human fetuses and cause premature births.