Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking?
Active travel (cycling, walking) is beneficial for the health due to increased physical activity (PA). However, active travel may increase the intake of air pollution, leading to negative health consequences. We examined the risk-benefit balance between active travel related PA and exposure to air pollution across a range of air pollution and PA scenarios. The health effects of active travel and air pollution were estimated through changes in all-cause mortality for different levels of active travel and air pollution. Air pollution exposure was estimated through changes in background concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ranging from 5 to 200μg/m3. For active travel exposure, we estimated cycling and walking from 0 up to 16h per day, respectively. These refer to long-term average levels of active travel and PM2.5 exposure. For the global average urban background PM2.5 concentration (22μg/m3) benefits of PA by far outweigh risks from air pollution even under the most extreme levels of active travel. In areas with PM2.5 concentrations of 100μg/m3, harms would exceed benefits after 1h 30min of cycling per day or more than 10h of walking per day. If the counterfactual was driving, rather than staying at home, the benefits of PA would exceed harms from air pollution up to 3h 30min of cycling per day. The results were sensitive to dose-response function (DRF) assumptions for PM2.5 and PA. PA benefits of active travel outweighed the harm caused by air pollution in all but the most extreme air pollution concentrations.
Wellcome Trust (087636/Z/08/Z)
Economic and Social Research Council (ES/G007462/1)
Medical Research Council (MR/K023187/1)
Medical Research Council (MR/K025147/1)