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Columbia Receives Grant to Study Risks of Air Pollution for Urban Cyclists

With spring here, urban cyclists are back in the saddle, burning calories and enjoying the outdoors. Every year, more people join the pack, thanks to the proliferation of bike paths and bike-share programs like New York’s Citi Bike. However, some city cyclists may be exposing themselves to unhealthy amounts of air pollution, according to Dr. Darby Jack, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, To test his hypothesis, Dr. Jack will join with the data news team from WNYC Radio this summer to recruit “citizen scientists” for the first phase of a larger cycling study, supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. The cyclists will collect data all over the city for analysis by the Mailman team. In addition to reporting findings, “our aim is to put the pieces together into a [pollution] map that can be useful to cyclists.” The research could also help city planners decide where bike lanes are situated and inform the creation of amenities like a greenway that minimize exposure. “We’re thinking of it as a policy input where this information leads to the design of safer infrastructure,” said Dr. Jack.

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[Photo: Dr. Darby Jack]

The idea grew out of a pollution study in Ghana where Dr. Jack used a device called a micoPEM to measure tiny airborne particles from inefficient cooking stoves. Pollutants from these stoves have been linked to low birth weights, heart attacks, and lung cancer.  To study if the same measurements could be applied in a different context and determine if the air monitoring equipment could measure the actual dose of pollution inhaled by a cyclist Jack and Steve Chillrud at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, assembled a sophisticated blend of technologies. These included a GPS to log speed and location; microPEMs to measure fine particles; microAeths to measure black carbon from fossil fuels; biometric shirts that record heart rate and breathing volume; and ambulatory blood pressure monitors to detect small changes resulting from air pollution exposure.  For the initial testing phase, Jack recruited a small group of bicycle commuters to wear the gear on and off their bicycles to compare levels during high exertion with those at rest indoors. Preliminary data points to the hazards of riding hard in Manhattan’s “street canyons,” where pollution from traffic can be high. By contrast, the Hudson River Greenway is relatively clean, even though it’s only a few yards from the West Side Highway. “Even a small separation from traffic can make a substantial difference,” Dr. Jack explains.