London Smog a Concern for Athletes’ Lungs
Estimates show about one in six Olympic athletes have exercise-induced asthma, a condition that can leave them reaching for rescue inhalers on the race track — and poor air quality, which is so often a concern in the chosen host cities, can easily exacerbate the problem, according to Clifford Bassett, MD, an allergist and medical professor at New York University.
“We’re particularly concerned with the outdoor sports, like cycling and running, since they’re more impacted by air quality,” Bassett told MedPage Today.
Experts have warned that London air quality has taken a hard hit from a summer heat wave, though forecasts call for a bit of reprieve over the weekend as the games get under way.
Still, recent reports have noted that London’s air quality is consistently worse than that of other countries in the European Union. Some people charge that London has also done far less to reduce emissions than Beijing did in 2008, though that city started with a far more dire pollution situation.
Most athletes are prepared for any changes in the quality of the air they’re breathing in, Bassett said.
Though a “very high number” of Olympic athletes experience exercise-induced bronchospasm, a smaller proportion — about 8% — have diagnosed asthma. All of these athletes would be treated with long-term medications and would have rescue inhalers on hand, he said. In addition, preventive steps including an adequate warm-up, proper hydration during exercise, and a sufficient cool-down could help mitigate any respiratory risks.
Though anyone can have an episode of bronchoconstriction, particularly during exercise or when exposed to high pollution levels, athletes are more at risk because of the volume of air they’re taking in, Bassett said. Those at such elite levels of exercise take in 10 to 20 times more air than sedentary people.
“During exercise in general you’re breathing faster so you’re inhaling more air, and you’re also taking more air in through your mouth,” he said, noting that the nostrils offer more protective mechanisms to filter out pollutants. So breathing through the mouth can lodge those particulates deeper into the lungs, inducing an attack.
Problem pollutants include nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and ozone, most of which come from motor vehicle emissions, according to Robert Glatter, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.
All of these can inflame the airways and trigger attacks, Glatter said, adding that even if they don’t cause an acute episode, they can still affect performance. Oxygen is key to athletic success, and if it’s being squeezed out by higher levels of other compounds, optimal performance can be affected.
On Friday afternoon, the U.K. Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reported that air pollution is expected to be moderate to low around London over the next 24 hours as temperatures drop.
An air quality website maintained for the games by Kings College London also predicted low to moderate pollution levels, though maps comparing London emissions with World Health Organization standards showed a number of locations where these were exceeded.
Nonetheless, Bassett said air quality issues are nothing new to Olympic competitions.
“There were air quality issues in Athens, there were air quality issues in Beijing … so it’s not that unusual,” he said. “We’re just becoming a bit more sophisticated, trying to guide [the athletes] and make appropriate recommendations so that they can be in optimal shape, particularly those who are going to be exercising outdoors.”