Air Pollution and the Olympics

Tahmina Kohistani, the only female Afghan track athlete competing in the London Olympics, trains in the Afghan capital Kabul – a city with some of the worst air pollution in the world. In the Afghan capital alone, the number of deaths caused by air pollution rivals the number of civilians killed nationwide every year by war-related violence. Sometimes Tahmina’s respiratory condition becomes more important than her sprint times.

Despite the problems Kabul’s air pollution pose to Tahmina’s training, her hope for what is to come in London keeps Tahima from becoming disheartened. Unfortunately, that hope might be misplaced in London. This summer, due to a massive heat wave, London’s air pollution is the worst it’s been in six years. The city’s air pollution is so bad that the Government issued a ‘Pollution Episode Warning’ as ozone (03) in North Kensington, London, breached ‘Public information threshold’ under UK and European law. The warning included the advice: Adults and children with lung problems, and adults with heart problems, should reduce strenuous physical exertion, particularly outdoors, and particularly if they experience symptoms.  People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more often. Older people should also reduce physical exertion.”

Since this is the warning for “at-risk individuals,” one could easily assume the warning would not apply to Olympic athletes. After all, they’re the picture of perfect health, of impeccable human form. Surprisingly, Olympic athletes are more prone to suffer from asthma than the general population. More than 20% of the U.S. Olympic Team that competed in the 1996 Atlanta Summer games reportedly had asthma! The increased air flow during exercise that athletes experience causes pollutants to travel deeper into the lungs, making athletes at higher risk for asthma and for air pollution affecting their performance and health.

So how bad is London air pollution? Compare it to that of Beijing, China, the site of the 2008 Olympics and another city with terrible air pollution. London’s air quality is a lot better than Beijing’s for the soot and other particulate matter, but Clean Air in London’s (CAL’s) scientists found that London’s levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were comparable to Beijing’s levels of N02 , and were the highest of any capital city in Europe in 2010. NO2, along with other pollutants in London’s air such as ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), and sulphur dioxide (SO2), are known asthma triggers.

We hope all the Olympic athletes will persevere through London’s smoggy air, and even more, for all Londoners, we hope government and industry will take action to eliminate this harmful pollution. Good luck to Tahmina Kohistani and all the Olympic athletes!