According to the British government, the Ozone concentration in southern England on Thursday was nearly twice the World Health Organization’s guidelines and the highest its been since 2006, just in time for the start of the Summer 2012 London Olympics.
The increased pollution, coupled with a heat wave, is expected to make things much more difficult for athletes competing in the games:
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, [exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or EIB] affects an estimated 20% of top athletes and an estimated 1 in 6 of all Olympic athletes.
“It has been well documented that elite athletes in the Olympics have an increased prevalence of EIB. They may not have suspected it, since they don’t have chronic asthma but rather a narrowing of the airways that comes specifically with exercise,” explained William S. Silvers, MD, FAAAAI, of the AAAAI’s Sports Medicine Committee.
An added concern for athletes with asthma and EIB is the amount of pollution in London, which may cause symptoms to worsen. Ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitric oxide and other pollutants can inflame the airways of sensitive people and even cause an asthma attack.
Professor Frank Kelly, Director of King’s College London’s Environmental Research Group, said recently that athletes “won’t be able to get enough oxygen in the body to perform at the highest level. What that means is they probably won’t be breaking any records under these conditions.” He added that the condition are “not ideal for athletics and certainly not for long distance events.”
In addition to the ozone, London also has a “higher concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere than Beijing, China, had during the last summer Olympic games before the Chinese government banned half of all cars in an effort to reduce pollution.”
Though athletes, who breathe heavily during competition and training, will be the most vulnerable to air pollution, spectators will not be immune to the conditions:
“Probably about 20 percent of the healthy population will feel some tightening of the chest as they go about daily normal activities,” said Kelly…. Government officials said most people were not affected by short term peaks in ozone but those with existing heart or lung conditions may experience increased symptoms.”
Prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, there were concerns about severe effects that the air might have on the athletes, particularly distance runners. The concerns turned out to be unfounded as everything turned out alright but as pollution from anthropogenic sources continues to accumulate in the atmosphere, the air quality at future Olympic games will continue to deteriorate. Add that to the massive changes in sports we’ll see thanks to climate change, and the Olympics in 20 years might look nothing like the London Games.
— Max Frankel