Michael Colgan

You eat the best low-fat, high-protein organically grown food. You drink and cook with purified water. You take complete vitamins and minerals every day. You balance your strength workouts with aerobics, running, cycling, swimming, or jiggling up and down in the gym on that wondrous assortment of shiny machines. It’s the myth of the healthy urban lifestyle. Open your eyes. By neglecting one vital component of life, you are slowly killing yourself.

Without oxygen from the environment, you would die within minutes. But in order to get this vital gas today, we also have to breathe carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and a smoldering waste dump of poisonous man-made gases and particulate matter. All those joggers running down the median grass strip of Santa Monica Boulevard in their morning pursuit of health, are doing their bodies more harm than good. With the exertion of running, they are breathing 12-20 times the air of sedentary folk. There is no way the benefits of nutrition and exercise can overcome the damage caused by sucking in that much chemical soup. They’d be better off spending an extra hour in bed. At Venice Beach it is the same scene, only this time it’s inside the gym. With air pollution pouring in the open windows, folk gasp and puff, straining to drive the toxins to the furthest depths of their lungs. It’s time to wake up. It’s not roses you’re smelling.

Monoxide Madness

The biggest problem is you can’t smell the worst of it. Carbon monoxide for example, was a rare gas over the millions of years of human evolution. Consequently, the natural selection process which made us what we are today, had no way to select humans who were resistant to this poison. Our bodies can’t even detect it. Carbon monoxide is odorless, tasteless, and invisible to all our body defenses.

When humans developed hemoglobin, in order to extract oxygen from the air, carbon monoxide wasn’t around. The chemical make-up of carbon monoxide we create today, by burning gas, oil and coal, just loves that hemoglobin mechanism. It combines with your hemoglobin 200 times more readily than oxygen. In preference to oxygen, your body sucks in every molecule of carbon monoxide in our urban air. It raises no protest, it can’t even recognize carbon monoxide. The gas combines with your hemoglobin to form the deadly poison carboxyhemoglobin, and delivers it to every cell. That’s why suicide by car exhaust is so popular. You die without noticing.

Don’t think you can dodge carbon monoxide, or any other toxic man-made gas. If you live in a major city in America, your blood levels of carboxyhemoglobin are likely to be three times that of folk in small mountain communities.1.2 If you are an athlete you are in double jeopardy, because you use a lot more air than sedentary folk. And don’t think it doesn’t affect you. Vital capacity (V02 max) starts to decline at a blood level of carboxyhemoglobin of 2.6%, an average level found in non-smoking, sedentary, urban folk.3

The Central Park Lesson

When doing research at Rockefeller University in New York, I trained with an enthusiastic group of runners in Central Park most evenings, and ran the New York Marathon three times and about 20 other marathons. As a good little scientist seeking to improve performance, I measured everything in our group, including lung function, heart function, lactic acidosis, anaerobic threshold, and VOÂ*2 max. We improved regularly and ran marathons faster every year. We were typical examples of athletes slowly destroying their health and performance.

We failed to appreciate just how much your body becomes part of its usual environment. Finally I started to realize how the polluted air in Central Park was dosing us with lead, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and a host of other poisons. My records show lung inflammation, bronchitis, and an incidence of upper respiratory tract infections much higher than the sedentary average.

Those of us who were determined to protect our health left New York. I went to San Diego and my health and running performance improved almost immediately. Those who went to the mountains to Boulder, Colorado, did best. They had the double advantage of cleaner air and training at 5000 ft. Since then, I have also fled the pollution of San Diego and now live and train on a small island off the coast of Vancouver in British Columbia.

By running in the air pollution of New York, we had been violating a basic principle of sports nutrition and optimum health. We were allowing, you might say encouraging, toxic chemicals to become part of our structure. If you train in an urban area now, think about it. For the best of health and strength it’s time to leave. Smart Olympic coaches know the score. They keep their athletes away from cities.

Getting Smoggier

The Environmental Protection Agency uses the Pollution Standard Index (PSI) to measure air pollution on a scale of 0-500. Zero to PSI 50 is near pure air. Above PSI 100 is, “unhealthy”. Above PSI 200 is “hazardous to health.” In defiance of America’s shining Clean Air Act, New York now has more than 200 days per year above PSI 100. Los Angeles is smoggier, with over 100 days above PSI 200, and growing worse by the year.

In February 1992, the US National Research Council reported, that the air quality in the Los Angeles Basin was the worst in the nation. Now it’s worse than ever. It subjects the twelve million residents to lung disorders, damaged immunity, and a lifespan three years shorter than average. Indoors, even with windows closed, Los Angeles residents receive toxic doses of man-made pollutants while they sleep.5

Asthma Sounds The Warning

Dr Russell Sherwin and colleagues at the University of Southern California, examined the lungs of young Los Angeles residents aged 14-25, who had died in traffic accidents and homicides. They found severe damage, including chronic bronchitis, lung inflammation, and actual holes burned into the lung tissues by the air pollution.6

Burned lungs are bad but the best evidence of the health devastation caused by air pollution is the increase in asthma. Calling asthma “the epidemic in the absence of infection,” a 1997 report in Science, the leading American science journal, documents that the incidence of asthma has doubled in the last 20 years.7 The implications of this man-made disease are devastating. Asthma is not only a severe illness itself, but, is even more important as a marker for systemic degeneration of the body. Asthma is an immune dysfunction, so any unnatural increase also signals a general decline in immunity to all diseases.

This immune decline is now so pervasive in America, that the US National Research Council instructed immunologists across the nation to redouble efforts to find a solution.8 Years of effort so far, have produced nothing except a worsening of the problem.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is one of the world’s most serious environmental problems. It has been common knowledge for many years now that the lung is one of the main target organs of environmental agents. Over the last ten years in particular, lung diseases have increased dramatically, and an increased incidence of bronchial asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.9

An epidemiological study in Europe has shown that the air pollution in France is responsible annually for 31,700 deaths, 36,700 new cases of chronic bronchitis and 577,000 attacks of asthma in adults, 450,000 cases of acute bronchitis and 243,000 attacks of asthma in children.10 A recent study on the long-term effects of air pollution on 500,000 residents in metropolitan areas in the US shows that an elevation in fine particulate air pollution can result in an 8% increased risk of cardiopulmonary and lung cancer mortality.

Another recent study found that air pollution is significantly associated with ischemic stroke mortality.11 Cleaning the air can also have a significant health benefit for urban dwellers. Dublin, Ireland banned coal burning in an effort to control air pollution.12 Average black smoke concentrations in Dublin declined by 70% after the ban. Respiratory and cardiovascular death rates fell as the ban took effect.

Antioxidant Protection

Most air pollutants do their damage by oxidation. So, despite the lack of studies on humans, it’s a logical assumption that antioxidants should protect you some. It certainly works with animals. In one report, two groups of rats were exposed to 0.1 ppm of ozone in air, the level exceeded every day in New York and Los Angeles. One group was supplemented with high doses of vitamin E. The other was given vitamin E in the diet equivalent of the RDA for humans. Most of the RDA group developed lung lesions within two weeks. Over 80% of the high-dose vitamin E group remained healthy throughout the study.13

In another report, rats were given either 100 IU or 1,000 IU of vitamin E per kilogram of food, and exposed to 0.8 ppm of ozone (the high end of current levels in Los Angeles). The rats given the high-dose vitamin E were far better protected.14

For some unknown reason, athletes are reluctant to deliberately expose themselves to toxic gases to test antioxidant protection. Can’t understand it myself, since they expose themselves every day on the freeway. Nevertheless scientists can’t get subjects even for pay, and have to try and do it sideways. In one of the few human studies, Dr. E. Calabrese gave healthy volunteers 600 IU of vitamin E daily for four weeks. He then exposed their blood cells in vitro (in the test tube) to hydrogen peroxide, an oxidation product of air pollution. The pollutant crucified the cells. By the second week of supplementation, however, the vitamin E afforded considerable protection.15 If you’re an urban dweller, don’t leave home without it.

Antioxidant Synergy

Vitamin E alone, no matter what the dose, is unlikely to protect you against our potent urban air pollution. But a mix of antioxidants might, because they work much better in synergy.16,17 Whenever I have to be in urban areas, or work there with athletes, everyone is given hefty doses of multiple antioxidants, including vitamin C: 2-6 grams, vitamin E: 800-2000 IU, selenomethionine: 400-600 mcg, and beta-carotene: 10,000 – 25,000 IU. We also take multiple carotenoids, including lutein, lycopene and zeaxanthin, and multiple flavonoids, including proanthocyanidins, anthocyanosides and polyphenols. We also exercise at the time of least air pollution, that is, real early in the morning.

Best is to avoid the cities entirely. The air pollution in major cities is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. If you want a long healthy life, start arranging your escape from the city today.


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