Smogging the Competition: Polluted Air and Athletes

<strong>The Olympic venue known as the Bird's Nest is shrouded in smog as construction workers work in the foreground.</strong><br><br><em>AP Photo/Oded Balilty</em>

Recently, Haile Gebrselassie, world record holder in the marathon, announced he is pulling out of the marathon for the Olympic Games this August in Beijing due to the city's air pollution problem. While he will compete in the 10,000 meter race, the fact that one of distance running's biggest names will be absent from the marathon has brought international attention to the issues of air pollution, asthmatic athletes and endurance athletes.

There are rumors of other asthmatic athletes that are considering skipping the Beijing Games due to the high levels of pollution.

Is it really that bad?

A spokesperson for Gebrselassie, who has exercise-induced asthma, said that the potential damage from the pollution to Gebrselassie's lungs is in the 1- to 2-percent range. I'm not sure how this value was determined, but if long-term damage occurs to an elite endurance athlete's body that affects performance at those seemingly low levels, it could be a career-ending race. The differences in performance at the highest level of endurance competition are indeed at these small percentages. Additionally, Gebrselassie, 34, is looking to break his own world marathon record. He does not want that record at risk due to the Olympic Games.

The Pollution Problem

We know pollution causes health problems. Multiple studies reveal the problems and risks to pulmonary function directly related to pollution.

In fact, a recent study found that traditional approaches to the calculation of the risk of pollution may underestimate the health impact of long-term environmental and other exposures that produce both chronic and acute disease—including asthma. Indeed, working on a greener environment is a serious matter for athletes and non-athletes alike.

In 2005, satellite data revealed that Beijing was the air pollution capital of the world. One study blamed air pollution for 411,000 premature deaths related to lung and heart diseases. Beijing air was described as "very dangerous."

Racing Through the Smog

It is understandable that residents of highly polluted cities are at greater risk for lung- and heart-related diseases; but can a single, limited-time exposure lead to permanent damage, disease and even death?

No one can give a definitive answer to that question.

If you live in or visit a highly polluted city, what should you do to reduce your chances of suffering short-term and long-term lung problems? Below are a few tips to help:

  • Avoid working out at times of the day when pollution is high. They times vary depending on temperature, humidity and geographic location. More information on air quality can be found on AIRNow.gov.

  • If you must work out at a high-pollution time of day, try to do so indoors in a location with a good ventilation and air filtration system.

  • If you are competing in a polluted location, avoid pollution exposure in the days prior to the event. Acute exposure can impair performance for 24 hours. Stay outside of the polluted location and drop in only for the race.

  • Keep your immune system strong. Avoid excessive stress and getting run down.

  • There is some evidence that vitamin C and E supplementation may reduce the affects of ozone.

  • Ibuprophen or indomethacin supplementation can partially block the affects of ozone on spirometry and respiratory symptoms. However, they do not prevent cell damage or prevent inflammatory cells from entering the lungs.

  • If you have asthma, keep up with your medications.

  • In extreme pollution, consider wearing an activated-charcoal face mask when outdoors, exercising or not. (U.S. athletes are being advised the same thing for Beijing.)

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