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A project to find out the effects of pollutants on runners

Does the benefit of running surpass the risk of pollution exposure in cities?  An experiment with 22 volunteers tries to find an answer. Led by the IDAEA-CSIC, the experiment Expo-Cov is carried out in three Spanish cities: Barcelona, Puerto Llano and Ciudad Real.


A volunteer of the project, ready to start running, this July in Barcelona.Generally it is accepted that running has benefits for the health. But, what about running through a polluted city? Is it healthy to run in the middle of cars and smoke? Maybe if there are few cars it is still healthy. But if there are many cars and a lot of pollution, common sense makes us imagine the contrary.

“Normally, physicians say that the health benefits of running compensate the negative effects of pollution, but the truth is that until now no study has tried to measure the effects of pollution on runners”, says Joan Grimalt, scientists at the Instituto de Diagnóstico Ambiental y Estudios del Agua (IDAEA) of the CSIC. In order to obtain data, the team Joan Grimalt and his team have launched the project Expo-Cov, which is funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness.

In the project, a group of 22 volunteers will run for an hour in two places: in a polluted place (city) and, three days afterwards, in a non-polluted place (countryside). The levels of airborne pollutant exposure are measured, as well as exhaled air and urine of the runners, and several biological markers in blood, in order to find out whether pollution makes a substantial difference or not. When volunteers are running, they carry a backpack with equipment: an air-pump to measure the volatile organic compounds and another to measure the black carbon they are breathing. Also, a GPS and a Heart rate monitor for recording the physical effort. The amount and total mass of airborne particles are also measured, and samples of them are taken for their analysis.

A volunteer running in the park of the Escorxador, in the center of Barcelona.

“Among the volunteers we have experts runners and people who only occasionally run, and men and women from the ages of 25 and 65 and from all kinds of professions”, points out Joan Grimalt. “The only requirement is that they must be non-smokers”. This diversity is essential, as it has to be a random sample of people.

The courses take place in Barcelona and, later, in Puertollano and Ciudad Real (both cities in the center of Spain). The goal is to carry out the experiment twice in summer and twice in winter in every city, and every time in two places (polluted and non-polluted).  

Last July the course in Barcelona took place, in the center of the city (polluted place) and on the road of Les Aigües, in the natural park of Collserola (non-polluted). Next September, the experiment will be repeated in the same places. The following scheduled courses are in January and March, in Barcelona, and at the April, in Puerto Llano and Ciudad Real. Puerto Llanos has been chosen because there exists a refinery and therefore the pollution conditions are of a different kind.

"The experiment requires a detailed organization and equipment, so we are looking for partners"

The experiment requires a detailed organization and equipment, says Joan Grimalt, so we are looking for partners to partially fund the experiment. “Every time it is necessary to have health care professionals for several days to carry out the medical analysis, a caravan for the urine analysis. Besides, many samples are necessary to assess the effect of pollution on the runners and the cost of analyzing them is high”.

The scientific and medical crew, waiting for the runners.Throughout the experiment, the scientific team has to be in the place from 8 am to 8 pm. “The pedestrians and the drivers are amazed to see us. Often they come to ask what we are doing. And they ask about all kinds of facilities in the neighborhood. Sometimes, other runners that just pass by come to ask for some water or drink. Many of them congratulate us and say that it was time a study like this was done and it was well-needed. Other people ask us which are the best places for running or offer themselves as volunteers for the experiment. Our crew and the vehicles don’t go unnoticed.”

The results of the experiment will help to know more about the effects of pollution on the health of people.