I have taken to wearing an anti-pollution mask when I ride my bike in city traffic and I encourage other cyclists to adopt my fashion statement. Unfortunately the harmony between fashion and function is blurred when it comes to pollution masks. From the oxygen ventilator to the industrial dust mask, function tends to win out over fashion in the anti-pollution mask niche. The ‘bandit’ style face scarf is one style that could be perhaps be considered fashionable, in a menacing kind of a way. It’s just a pity that Michael Jackson already thought so too. Given the ‘Waco Jacko’ factor and the inferiority of this design in effectively filtering out traffic fumes compared with the more hardcore anti-pollution muzzles, I have opted for a Respro City Mask. I call my mask a muzzle for a reason; now when I ride my bike in heavy city traffic I look like Hannibal Lector. The only thing scarier would be a full blown gas mask, which I suppose is an option if you’re a frustrated cyclist like me and are sick of riding amongst clogged up cars in unbreathable city air. Besides, shock value is an important part of any new fashion trend.
I ride my bike to-and-from work and Uni everyday through peak hour traffic and I find the pollution to be unbearable. Where possible I will ride the side roads and the creek track so that I don’t have to wear my muzzle. But in an urban environment, as a dedicated cyclist, it’s simply not possible for me to avoid heavy traffic while relying on my bike as a mode of transport. The way I see it is that if every health conscious cyclist joined me in wearing an anti-pollution mask, not only would we be sending a visible message to others about the health effects of an auto-dominated society, we would also be starting a new fashion trend. I have been driven to wearing a facemask for the sake of my health. Join me in protecting yourself so that I don’t look like a lonely eccentric fool.
The fact is that traffic pollution is bad for you. The fine particulate matter and toxic chemicals found in vehicle exhaust is commonly known to be linked to higher rates of respiratory disorders such as asthma, bronchitis and decreased lung functioning. Traffic exhaust contributes to morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular disease and is a risk factor connected with lung cancer. Benzene is a known carcinogen that is found in higher levels in diesel exhaust, which is a concern considering the increasing congestion of heavy freight on Melbourne’s roads. A World Health Organisation study from 2000 reports that some evidence suggests an increased risk of childhood leukaemia from vehicle exhaust where Benzene may be the responsible agent. This is just one of the most dangerous substances in the cocktail of chemicals that is vehicle exhaust. For a comprehensive list of chemicals found in vehicle exhaust and their effects on human health- research, www.worldcarfree.net/ resources/stats.php.
Reading through these chemicals reminds me of an anti-smoking ad. Indeed, it seems to me that there are strong similarities between the health issues of traffic induced air pollution and cigarette smoking, except that awareness of the health effects of traffic pollution is decades behind the anti-smoking campaign. Think about it. If the tobacco industry was able to put up decades of stubborn resistance in denying the blatantly obvious (that cigarette smoking is bad for you) then what chance do health campaigners have of bringing to light the true costs of traffic pollution? Oil and automobiles are economically and emotionally two of the most entrenched vested interests in our society. Cigarette smoking has been successfully discredited as an anti-social behaviour in our society, but it isn’t so easy to make people see our addiction to the automobile in the same light. A majority of us rely on our private car to function in our everyday lives. It is the machine that binds our society. In affluent countries, the private car has provided the majority of us with an unprecedented freedom of personal mobility. This is a freedom that will not be easily relinquished. Our dependence on the private car is far more powerful than any tobacco addiction.
I’m not saying that we should ban cars. For all of the damaging side effects that our auto-addiction has brought (air pollution, road trauma, traffic congestion, noise, sedentary lifestyles) our society would collapse overnight if people couldn’t drive their car. Whether I like it or not, our society has tacitly agreed that the private car shall be a necessary evil in our lives. We accept the evil of air-pollution for our freedom of mobility. What I cannot accept is that some people no longer recognise our auto-addiction as an evil in the first place. Our auto-dependence is so deeply embedded within our culture that it is unfathomable for us to even consider the costs of our utter reliance on the automobile, let alone to change our transport behaviour. People will continue to drive their cars, no matter what the health costs. And I will wear a face mask.
Having grown up in a country town, I am perhaps more sensitive than your average Melburnian to the air pollution. Or should I say that your average Melburnian is more desensitised to air pollution than me? This isn’t because Melbourne hasn’t got an air pollution problem, you can visibly see it staining our magnificent city-scape on any blue skyed day. It’s just that air pollution is a permanent feature of city living. It is an accepted evil that is no longer recognised as an evil in the first place, and so it has been allowed to get worse. Air pollution is like breathing, you don’t notice it until you’re made to.
At this point I’m sure that many proud and indignant Melburnians would like to point out that the air pollution isn’t that bad. The argument usually goes, “Yeah but the pollution in Melbourne isn’t as bad as in Sydney!”
To these people I would like to point out two things. One, Melbourne is a better city than Sydney. A truly world class city shouldn’t get stuck justifying its shortcomings by comparing itself to other, inferior cities. We should be seeking to stand up against other world-class cities that are ahead of us in any given area. In terms of transport, we should be viewing our traffic problem as deplorable compared with cities leading the world in best practice sustainable transport. These happen to be the most cultured and liveable cities in the world. Secondly, a city doesn’t need to have a smog problem on the scale of, say, Mexico City, where 7 in 10 children have had their development stunted from lead in traffic pollution, for traffic fumes to be a health issue. In my case, it doesn’t matter what city I’m in. When I’m riding my bike in dense traffic, say, Hoddle or Alexandra parade, I’m breathing in fumes straight from the exhaust pipe.
So from function comes fashion. I have opted to protect my health by wearing an anti-pollution mask. The fact that traffic fumes are bad for your health seems to me as obvious as the fact that cigarette smoking is bad for you. Yet, somehow science and public awareness on the issue hasn’t arisen to reveal the true health costs of traffic induced air pollution in urban environments. Personally, I’m not going to wait for that to happen. I’m going to mask up. Join me.
Written by Patrick Lias