Air pollution is everyone’s problem, and there are certain people who can suffer its consequences more than the usual
In a 2018 study by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Philippines ranked third on the list of countries with the highest number of air pollution-related deaths. It’s a fact that speaks for itself yet it seems that the connection between illness and air pollution is never taken as anything more than the usual health caution. The scope of the problem may have to do with the lack of action, but it also points to its pervasiveness: It’s everyone’s problem, and, as it turns out, there are certain people who can suffer its consequences more than the usual.
How does air pollution affect athletes?
Athletes, for instance, are at higher risk to contract air pollution-related health problems. This is because when they train, they take in as much as 20 times more air than a person at rest. Which means they are also taking in about 20 times more pollutants. Among these pollutants are sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which can impede the function of the lungs by constricting their airways. The short-term effects of all this manifest in the form of chronic coughing, but over time, they lead to a significant drop in respiratory and cardiac health, and, in effect, athletic performance.
Triathletes, cyclists, and runners are particularly vulnerable. The grueling nature of endurance sports is of course a factor, but what makes triathletes, cyclists, and runners more susceptible to airborne health problems is that, relative to basketball players or volleyball players, they go through longer periods of increased exposure to pollutants. Extreme physical exertion done in the outdoors means that they’re more likely to contract asthma or upper and lower airway dysfunction. Research has also shown that increased exposure to air pollutants make runners and triathletes more likely to suffer from heart attacks.
What should athletes do?
Realistically, there’s almost no way to ensure that athletes get to only train in places free of serious air pollution. So what’s their recourse? They can take little steps such as scheduling their trainings in late evenings (when air pollutant levels are lower), avoiding congested roadways, or even sometimes training indoors in a room that’s installed with an air purifier.
But if, for some reason, outdoor training is inevitable, it would benefit athletes to consider the core of the problem. In the study mentioned above, the WHO reports that the air pollution-related deaths were mainly caused by “inefficient energy use in households, industries, the agriculture and transport sectors, as well as coal-fired plants.”
Air quality is largely dependent on the kind of energy being produced and used. Coal-fired plants emit high levels of sulfur dioxide, carbon, and nitrogen oxide, so it’s not a surprise that a lot of people near coal plants catch airborne illnesses. Of course, there are much cleaner alternative energy sources such as natural gas that emit significantly less pollutants. Shifting to increased dependence on such sources is of course a big change and will take a lot of time and effort, but it’s surely a good idea to start taking simple steps toward that direction as early as now. For instance, what athletes can do to resolve their outdoor training problems and take better care of themselves is by advocating for clean air through training and supporting sites that are conscious about the kind of energy they use.
Examples of which are places surrounded by natural gas plants, which have very little impact on its surroundings. Take the case of the Batangas Provincial Sports Complex: Less than a kilometer away from the First Gen Clean Energy Complex (which houses four natural gas plants), it’s a site perfect for jogging, track and field activities, and swimming. Studies on natural gas have shown that relative to coal, it has a negligible impact on air quality.
It’s an obviously better approach instead of relying on energy sources that pose additional risks to public health. Versus coal, natural gas has several distinct advantages: There are less emissions (nearly 100 percent less sulfur oxide, ~90 percent less nitrogen oxide, and approximately 60 percent less carbon dioxide); less pollutants (zero toxic ash and sludge); and hardly any amounts of particulate matter in the air.
It’s clear that the future is natural and while the aspiration of athletes on better air quality may seem self-serving for their own benefits, the bigger picture shows that it isn’t—an athlete’s ambitions may just flip the industry on its head and inject confidence into a country that may need to clean up its act.