Athletes & Air Pollution
A closer look on the impact air pollution has on athletic performance
January 31, 2021 | Published by O2
We all know oxygen is essential. The average person takes in about 11,000 litres of air a day in order to fuel cells, provide mental clarity, and support the basic building blocks of human survival. Another critical element is the body’s use of oxygen for its immune system; helping to kill bacteria and act as a line of defense against viruses and other invaders. However, when oxygen – or air – is polluted, there are many short and long term health implications ranging from irritation to the nose, throat, eyes and skin, to dizziness, pneumonia, or bronchitis, and even worse aliments like heart disease, lung cancer and damage to the brain and other internal organs.
With the basic understanding of the need for clean air and the side effects of air pollution, try to imagine how your body might respond if you were ingesting 20 times more air pollution a day. That is 20 times the exposure to upper respiratory infections and being 20 times more vulnerable to the long term health impacts. That group of individuals who are exponentially exposing themselves are our athletes. Athletes take in 20 times more air than a person at rest, most of it being inhaled through the mouth, bypassing the body’s natural nasal filtration system, and therefore increasing the amount of pollution ingested into the body. The combination of exercise mixed with the main components of air pollution, sulfur dioxide and ozone, have a direct impact on athletic performance, and we all need to better understand how these impacts leave athletes with an uneven playing field.
In 2017, an international cricket match between rivals India and Sri Lanka saw smog levels so high in the host city of Delhi, that it forced umpires to halt play for 20 minutes in order to consult with team doctors. This was the first ever recorded instance of an international cricket match being stopped due to smog. Players were seen crouched over, having difficulty breathing, and some even vomiting on the sidelines — only to be met with oxygen cylinders in their dressing rooms as they retreated from the smog. And while India is sadly known to have some of the worst air quality in the world – according to World Health Organization Standards – other controlled studies outside of India have come to the same conclusion; athletes cannot compete or perform at their peak in such pollutive conditions. A controlled study on United States marathon runners looked to quantify performance decrements correlated to air pollution, and what they found was for every increase of 10 mg per cubic meter of PM 10 (particulate matter) runners could expect to decrease in performance by 1.4%….and in a world where records are set and medals are won based on exceptional human performance, 1.4% is a huge difference.
When we think of air pollution, what usually comes to mind are bustling cars and industrial buildings, but wildfires also play a large role in expelling black carbon into the skies. During the 2020 Australian Open, practice and games were temporarily suspended as tennis stars like Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova complained about poor air quality, with some players even abandoning their matches altogether due to looming coughing fits. Smog, smoke, and wildfires not only affect athletes, but also the entire sport ecosystem. Coaches, trainers, sideline personnel and even more so referees, are just as susceptible to decreased performance in these harsh conditions which ultimately can have detrimental effects on the overall quality of the game.
So why do we continue to play in polluted environments and only stop when someone gets sick? The unfortunate truth is that most major sports organizations have little, or no, policy in place to determine what levels on the Air Quality Index (AQI) deem a sport unsafe to play. Many leagues will look to examine the state of play only when the AQI reaches 200, which is already considered a “very unhealthy” zone according to the US Air Quality Index, (which is recognized worldwide as the standard for air quality indices). Many medical and academic experts in the the sports field have encouraged leagues to take a second look at their AQI policies, and rather than examine play at a hard number, like 200, encouraged them to analyze each game on a case-by-case basis and leave room for a variety of factors that could pose serious health risks to both athletes and fas. It is also known that extreme AQI levels are not only seen as an issue in outdoor sports, but indoor sports as well. Facilities that have poor ventilation can cause the unhealthy outdoor air to seep inside their stadiums and arenas just as quickly, causing the indoor AQI to rise as well.
Now is the time for leagues around the world to take a hard look at the environment their athletes are playing in, and enforce stringent protocols to keep them safe. They must listen to climate and air pollution experts to help design AQI policies that are conducive to a variety of sports and ensure the entire sports ecosystem remains protected, so that we can continue watching our favourite sports for years to come!