How Air Pollution Affects Physical Activity

Story and Video by Anna Varela

Roby Greenwald, an environmental health researcher at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, studies how air pollution affects health.

One of his current projects is focused on physically active people in metro Atlanta, including high school football players and track team members, as well as adults who enjoy Ultimate Frisbee. Like many active people, they often exercise in smoggy weather or in parks or school fields near high-traffic areas.

Dr. Greenwald’s research team is examining the possible health effects of these exposures.

One important factor they have to consider is that people of different height inhale different volumes of air. The amount of exertion is even more important.

A tall person running on the field might inhale 3 times as much air as a smaller person sitting on the sidelines, meaning more pollution exposure. In effect, they are exposed to different “doses” of pollution. In some of his previous work, Dr. Greenwald has developed methods to account for that.

In the current project, he found volunteers to wear heart rate monitors and pedometers who were also willing to exhale into devices that measure tiny particles or exhaled gasses in their breath known as biomarkers. The breath tests are done before and after the workout to provide data for comparison.

The study looks at these biomarkers – biological markers – to examine how athletes’ bodies react to the stresses of exercise and pollution exposure.

These methods allow researchers to go beyond simply measuring how much pollution is in the air and actually examine how much is inhaled. Dr. Greenwald and his research partners will be analyzing the data this fall and hope to glean insights into the health impacts of exposure to a range of air pollutants common in Atlanta.

They plan to publish their findings in 2017.