Out of context, it’s beautiful, lazy white clouds billowing and dancing on the breeze. Except, in this case, those clouds are the noisome farts of a long line of idling automobiles. They are benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde (all known carcinogens), carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter. In the wintertime, when air temperatures drop, the density of pollutant gases goes up, so they linger at street level, mesmerizing and choking.
It’s quaint, Clarendon Street, Boston. A narrow road bisecting the Back Bay neighborhood, paved over landfill mostly. On it stands the historic Trinity Church and the towering, modern Hancock Building. A wind tunnel forms there that has been known to blow unsuspecting pedestrians and cyclists right onto their surprised asses. Around the corner is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness headquarters. Upscale dining and retail establishments cluster at roadside, accommodating the needs and whims of Boston’s hip urban workforce.
Cars park up both sides of the street, narrowing it further, and in the winter morning rush hour, it is lined with automobiles slinking across town to the South End. Exhaust billows lazily from 100 idling tail pipes, like cigarette smoke in a close, still room, almost hypnotic, like that shit that floats around in a lava lamp.
Most mornings, I use Clarendon to get to the office, weaving my way along the narrow gap between parked cars and their still-mobile kin. It is in this gap that I find myself struggling to regulate my breathing , trying to avoid ingesting massive amounts of exhaust, holding my breath and ducking through the clouds.
It is it’s own sort of cardio-vascular challenge.
Do your lungs itch? It might be a chest cold, a touch of bronchitis, or it might be these pollutants which are known to irritate sensitive bronchi and lungs, forcing airways to narrow, making it more difficult to breathe. As it turns out, carbon monoxide has this amazing ability to combine with hemoglobin, several orders of magnitude better than oxygen itself. That means that, on top of the narrowing of airways that makes it harder to get oxygen into the respiratory system, car exhaust also forces oxygen out of your circulatory system. If you have asthma, all of these effects are compounded further.
If you are riding in city traffic and you are developing regular headaches or dizziness, you may already be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Or maybe your symptoms are more subtle. In cold weather, you may notice a surfeit of phlegm or mucus. This can be a result of exposing your lungs to cold air for the first or second time in a season, or it may be the result of the thickening of bodily fluids that comes from regular inhalation of particulates.
Certainly there are some masks on the market aimed at filtering all this bad shit out of the lungs of urban commuters. Respro makes one, G-Flow makes one, ICB makes one , Filt-R makes one, but do any of these seem practical? I am fighting an internal battle, weighing the value of not suffering my regular winter bronchial maladies vs. the discomfort of wearing and maintaining one of these masks all winter.
Will I one day look back on the cumulative effects of years of urban cycling and kick myself for not doing this one simple thing? Was there any point in quitting smoking in my 20s? Is it better to wait for one of the myriad studies on the high costs of urban air pollution to change the way we use our cities by removing so many of these pollution belching vehicles? Probable answers: yes, yes, and no.
The truth is, I would far rather suffer through some bronchial uncertainty than consign myself to the couch for the winter. That way, after all, lies madness. And obesity. I don’t need to tell you about the health risks associated with that extra layer of winter fat, not to mention the deleterious effects on your love life.
No, life is dangerous if you live it right. This winter I will go on bobbing and weaving like a welter weight in a title fight. As it turns out, the air quality inside the cars isn’t any better than in the wafting cl0uds outside.