Why it is a good idea to wear a mask in busy traffic?

Cyclists should wear an effective air filter mask or better move away from the busy roads. That’s the conclusion I got when looking at the animated 3D ‘Pollution map’ video of London. The orange yellow color, mainly along the main roads, indicates high level of air pollution where the blue color are area with better air quality. It is intuitive to think air pollution level is higher along the main roads and lower away from the main roads, but I could never imagine the differences can be so huge!

In the short video below you can see the highest air pollution concentrated along the main roads and peak at the junctions, likely the result of slow moving vehicles there. Most of the area far away from the main roads are much better. Next time when I have to wait for the green light at busy intersection, I will hold my breath as much as possible.

The negative health effect of different pollutants are not the same. Amongst the pollutants, ultrafine particles (0.1-0.3 micros, currently not being regulated) can travel deep down into the lungs and stay longer there than their bigger brothers (PM10, >10 microns, PM2.5 >2.5 microns). According to WHO:

Some 3.7 million premature deaths annually are attributed to outdoor air pollution. About 80% of those deaths are due to heart disease and stroke, while another 20% are from respiratory illnesses and cancers related to exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the most health-harmful air pollutant.

Ultra fine particles clearly reduces the health benefits of physical exercise. There are increased evidence showing these ultra-fine particles are the silence killer closely links to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. According to UCLA, the smaller the particles, the more toxic chemicals they are they are carrying. These very fine particles can travel deep into the lung. They stick to the lung and releases chemicals that damage the blood vessels and cause blood clogging plaques to form. The worst exposure is right next to the highway. Therefore, it is not a silly idea to wear a filter mask if your biking route have to go through busy traffic. However, do make sure two things, first the mask must form a good seal on your face, otherwise the pollutant will bypass the filters. Second make sure the filters are effective to block very fine particles, including those of 0.1 micron and PM2.5 (below 2.5 microns).

Totobobo filter test agaisnt ultrafine particles (0.1 microns) Test report

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Martie’s Totobobo filter in London

Martie use her Totobobo mask for cycling in London traffic
Martie use her Totobobo mask for cycling in London traffic (Southampton Row, London)

Why do you choose cycling to work?

I realised cycling is a cheaper, more reliable and (even) enjoyable mode of transport compared to the unreliable, overcrowded & expensive public transport. I’m least interested in cycling sports, but I’m glad that I made the decision to cycle for my everyday transport.

Adding all the bicycle-related cost (bike, locks, mask, clothes etc. altogether) is equivalent of buying a 4-month travel ticket in London. Even including maintenance cost, I’m financially better-off cycling than using public transport.

Another factor is reliability. Cycling may take a bit longer and require more physical effort, but at least its duration is predictable. Commuting on a public transport is always full of confusion and frustration due to unreliable service and overcrowding. But once I started cycling, to my surprise the whole set of travel-related stress has disappeared and I discovered happier me.

When I started cycling I was scared my socks off for the first 2-3 months, but if you take it as a small adventure for the first time and repeat the route carefully, the nervous excitement will wear off and cycling will become everyday activity after a while.

To cycle safely amongst large vehicles, you just need to know the DOs and DON’Ts around those vehicles. As long as you adhere to it, those big guys won’t harm you. If you respect other general traffic rules, the motorists will respect your presence in return. You cycle alone but you share the space with everyone else.

How is your experience of using Totobobo mask in London?

Martie at Kingsway, London, WC2B
Martie at Kingsway, London, WC2B

filters facing outside of the mask.
Totobobo mask after cycling in London about a week, the distance covered is approx 80km.

I use Totobobo mask all the time as I cycle everywhere in London.

Since I began commuting to the centre of London where traffic pollution is worst, I started using double 96% filter for my mask.

With single filter I get discomfort in my throat after every journey because of the heavy traffic, but with double filter I can clearly feel the improvement. Previously I keep producing small amount of sputum for a couple of hours after every journey, whereas with double filter, I don’t get that ‘ahem…ahem, ahem…’ phase, virtually none.

Obviously using double filter limits my inhalation, but I’m happy to take this trade-off for greatly reducing discomfort caused by pollution.

I have been using double filter nearly every day for about 4 months, and so far there’s no lasting respiratory impact, only short period of breathlessness immediately after a journey.

filters facing outside of the mask.
filters facing outside of the mask.

With the mask, I’m more willing to travel longer distance without worrying about the level of pollution, it also allows me to cycle safely as I’m not compelled to move away from the rear of a vehicle when it is unsafe to do so.

I do intensive exercise regularly so I know my respiration capacity is stronger than the average person, but I’m also aware that there might be a long term negative impact of having double filter.

(Note: Double layer of filter may cause discomfort and can be damaging for special group of user. Consult your doctor before applying double filter on your mask.)

Have you tried other brands (of mask) before?

No, but other products didn’t look so air-tight while Totobobo taking less space to carry around. Other product looked either too elaborate or too flimsy. Totobobo seemed to me hitting the right balance.

The rather clinical look of the mask sometimes raise eyebrows, but I think it’s just an outcome of that famous principle ‘form follows function’.

Mohit recommends Totobobo mask

What are cyclists looking for in a pollution mask?
We have put special consideration to a number of applications when designing TOTOBOBO mask. Following are the list for cyclists.

Mohit from India recommends Totobobo mask. His has been using his trusty Totobobo mask for the last 10 years!
Thank you Mohit!