London 2012 Olympics: Could Air Quality Affect Athlete Performance?

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Will the London smog affect the Olympic athletes? Image by Iain Buchanan

There was intense media interest in response to the decision for the 2008 Olympic Games to be held in Beijing, which is considered one of the most polluted urban areas in the world.

The Chinese government introduced a number of measures to reduce pollution during the games, including reducing private traffic by 50% and government traffic by 70%.

In addition, construction was postponed and heavily polluting factories asked to suspend their activities. This resulted in a positive effect on pollutant levels during the games.

What is London Doing to Reduce Air Pollution During the Games?

In London, Mayor Boris Johnson has not banned traffic, but has instead encouraged people to avoid driving through the city during this period by working from home. There have been messages played over public address systems advising the public to expect delays while travelling through London, and to avoid doing so if possible. Transport for London (TfL) have said that they will spray the busiest streets with a solution of calcium magnesium acetate, which is designed to trap pollutants.

TfL have dismissed claims that the creation of 600 miles of ‘Olympics only’ vehicle lanes will increase air pollution on other roads due to the shift in traffic. A spokesperson for TfL has said there may be a ‘slight and temporary increase’ in PM10 and NO2 emissions, but that the Olympic Games are predicted to have a ‘broadly neutral impact on air quality’.

Professor Frank Kelly of Kings College London has said ‘London’s normal level of pollution is not going to trouble athletes as the problem is most acute near busy roads where they will not be performing. I only anticipate a problem if the weather turns very warm and we have still conditions.’

Simon Moore from the Environment and Energy Unit at the Policy Exchange has recently published a report on the status of Britain’s air quality. He told Decoded Science, ‘The Olympics gives politicians the catalyst they need to start tackling the deadly problem of air pollution in London. Stepping up measures to tackle harmful air pollution should be a major component of the environmental legacy of the Games that the government and the Mayor want to secure.

Whilst there is a proven link between air quality and adverse health effects, fewer studies have been completed to quantify the link between exercise and health effects from air pollution. Studies on high-performing athletes, to investigate the effect of air pollution, have been limited for ethical reasons. We will have to wait and see to what extent air pollution will impact the athletes competing at London 2012, and whether measures adopted to reduce air pollution during the Games may give insight as to how to reduce pollution in London in the Future.

References:

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COMEAP. The Mortality Effects of  Long-Term Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution in the United Kingdom. (2010). A report by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. ISBN 978-0-85951-685-3. Accessed July 25, 2012.

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McKenzie, D.C., Boulet, L-P. Asthma, outdoor air quality and the Olympic Games. (2008). Can. Med. Assoc. J. 179(6): 543-548. Accessed July 25, 2012.

Moore, S. Something in the air: The forgotten crisis of Britain’s poor air quality. (2012). Policy Exchange. ISBN: 978-1-907689-25-3. Accessed July 25, 2012.

Rundell, K.W. Effect of air pollution on athlete health and performance. (2011). Br. J. Sports Med. Accessed July 25, 2012.

Vidal, J. Olympic athletes could be impaired by London pollution, experts warn. 2012. Article published in The Guardian. Accessed July 25, 2012.

Wang, T., Nie, W., et al. Air quality during the 2008 Beijing Olympics: secondary pollutants and regional impact. (2010). Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss. 10:12433-12463. Accessed July 25, 2012.

Whittaker, A., BéruBé, K., et al. Killer smog of London, 50 years on: particle properties and oxidative capacity. (2004). Sci. Total Environ. 334-335: 435-445. Accessed July 25, 2012.

Xu, X.H., Barsha, N.A.F., et al. Analyzing regional influence of particulate matter on the city of Beijing, China. (2008). Aerosol Air Qual. Res. 8:78-93. Accessed July 25, 2012.

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