Bicycles, Breathing and Bridges: A Toxic Trio?

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Bike routes on many bridges offer a little distance and protection from vehicle exhaust, but not the Triborough.

Thousands of vehicles cross the RFK-Triborough Bridge each day. Only a handful of them are bicycles.

Earth sciences teacher and bike commuter Myrna Gatica says there's a good reason for that. 

"It’s scary, it’s not well-designed, it's a pain," said Gatica, 28, who until recently rode back and forth over the Triborough to get from her home in Queens to the school where she taught in the Bronx.

And while the air always seemed cloudy from exhaust spewed by cars and trucks, Gatica consoled herself that while riding home she could unwind a little on Randall's Island, which lies below the Triborough.

"It’s close to the water. It has a lot of green trees and plants," she said. "It just feels clean. It feels purifying. Sometimes I just sit down, read a book and zen out."

This summer Gatica participated in a long-term Columbia University study to evaluate air quality at street level around the city, measure how much pollution cyclists breath in, and assess the impact of that for health. She is one of the first volunteers in the research project funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. For five full days over the course of two weeks, she wore an elaborate outfit that included monitors to measure fine particles and a tight nylon undershirt with electronic sensors to track heartbeat and respiration. A portable blood pressure cuff contracted around her arm every 20 minutes, before and after the ride.


Traditionally, pollution monitors have been stationary, posted on roof tops or light poles. It's only recently that they've been small enough to carry comfortably.

Very preliminary data from the monitors Gatica wore suggests that the air around the Triborough is indeed relatively polluted, compared to other areas — and that extends to Randall's Island underneath.

"It’s a pattern we seem to be picking up on the bikers, when they’re on bridges," researcher Steven Chillrud, from Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said. "It’s a bottleneck, so you’re bottling all this traffic into this small area."

Intensified breathing during exercise can amplify the exposure to pollution. Chillrud and his colleagues are trying to find out by how much. Ultimately, they hope to develop smartphone-based mapping tools to help cyclists and runners get around the city as cleanly as possible.

Overall, cycling has helped Gatica. She lost 65 pounds since she began seriously bike commuting, and she said her rides make her feel more calm and confident. Disappointed that the pause on Randall’s Island might not be so purifying — at least not in a strict physical, chemical sense — she joked that perhaps she has some genetic mutation that protects her from pollution.

"I grew up in the city and have been breathing this air my entire life," she said. "So maybe I’m immune to it?"

To learn more about the study Myrna is participating in, watch the Science Friday video below.