Cyclist reveals filthy face masks after commuting in London (uncensored)

Last Friday I quoted an article published in The London Evening Standard1 as an introduction to a post on air quality in Stockholm and the crap that we, pedestrians and cyclists, breathe in pretty much all the time (I know motorists don’t breathe in cleaner air either but, hey, it’s mostly them that are making it toxic to start with).

“Cyclist reveals filthy face masks after commuting in London” describes a pretty scary reality already but it seems it does not exactly tell what John Lenehan (the cyclist) had in mind when he spoke to the journalist over the phone. He since has reached out to the newspaper and some of the article has been updated but he is still not happy with it and, therefore, reached out to the Great North

Hello. I spoke on the phone with a reporter, who then wrote the original article. I read the original article after it had been published. I wasn’t happy with it and so I produced the “corrected” article, which I then emailed to the reporter. It seems as of now that the only change made was that my name was corrected. I don’t know if they plan to run the full corrected article or not. So that’s my story. You can proceed however you choose. – John Lenehan

I’ve tried to reproduce John’s story as he sent it to me and added some extra weight on words and sentences that were changed or are completely missing in The London Evening Standard’s version. As always don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments section!

From Stockholm, with polluted love.


A general point – this is not a cycling-specific problem. It’s a problem that affects everybody. It’s not another “cyclist versus the world” argument.

Cyclist reveals filthy face masks after commuting in London

A cyclist is calling on the government to improve air quality after his face mask filters were left covered in filth after a week of commuting.

John Lenehan, an engineer, purchased the mask after suffering from a cough and irritable throat as he cycled to his office in Old Street, east London.
He wore the mask for three days as he made his way from Enfield to his workplace, cycling for about 60 miles in total, in April.

But when Mr Lenehan looked at filters inside the masks, designed to trap harmful particulates, he was shocked to find them completely blackened by pollution.
The results left Mr Lenehan so concerned for his health he decided to stop cycling to work and commute by train instead.

Anti-pollution mask, air filters, London
The photograph shows a filter after around 4 hours of cycling on the right. The middle filter is after approximately 3 hours underground.

He continued to wear the mask for the journey, which included underground travel for the final 10 minutes, and was horrified to find the mask filters were similarly blackened from underground travel.

Mr Lenehan, who is also a triathlete, has since moved house, living outside of London. This has completely changed his commute to include no underground travel, and no travel by bus or bike on busy roads, because of health concerns.

The 30-year-old said: “When I was cycling to work I would be coughing and have a sore throat all the time. The damage I was doing to myself was beyond belief. The cumulative effects of this toxic pollution over a lifetime do not bear thinking about.

“It is not just cycling-specific problem, it is something that affects everybody – people travelling all over London, people living and working in London, children, adults, elderly people. As an example, Oxford Street, one of London’s showcase streets, regularly fails air quality tests. It’s no wonder, with so many buses and taxis.

“You can’t actually see the air pollution and know how bad it is, and I think that people need to know the extent of the problem and the diseases it can cause.”

“London’s air is lethally toxic. I think there are many contributing factors: buses and taxis would be major polluters. Poor traffic flow, congestion, and the stop-start road network is also a problem. The air underground is also appalling.”

Mr Lenehan, alongside other air pollution campaigners, is calling on the Mayor of London to take radical and urgent action to address the problem. Cleaner technologies are available and must be embraced, particularly for buses, taxis and lorries. Congestion must be reduced.

Mr Lenehan also suggests that the public should be made more aware of the extent of the air pollution problem in London. So bad is London’s air pollution that it is in fact illegal, and last year the Supreme Court ruled that the Government is failing in its legal duty to protect Londoners from the harmful effects of air pollution.

Keep scrolling down… Matthew Pencharz, senior environment and energy adviser to the Mayor, said:

The Mayor is leading the most ambitious and comprehensive package of measures in the world to improve London’s air quality, an urgent challenge which affects the health and well-being of all Londoners.

At the heart of his plans is the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone in central London from 2020. Already, progress is being made. Unlike many cities, we have met EU rules on particulate matter. The number of Londoners living in areas above nitrogen dioxide (NO2) limits has halved since 2008.


Note on the last two paragraphs

These paragraphs are quite disappointing, because in my opinion, not enough is being done to tackle the problem. The idea of my “campaign” (for want of a better word) is to try to show people how bad the air is, and to highlight the fact that the problem is not being taken seriously enough by the authorities, and not enough action is being taken. What action there is just isn’t urgent enough. The technology and the ability to change is there, but the willingness and urgency doesn’t seem to be.

Some statistics like this should be included

The legal limit for UK average annual nitrogen dioxide levels is 40 micrograms per metre cubed. In 2013, at 62 (62!) monitoring stations across London, this limit was exceeded. In many cases, it wasn’t just exceeded, it was grossly exceeded. In Wandsworth (a residential area with many young families – remember that children are more susceptible to the effects of air pollution), levels have reached FOUR times the legal limit. On Oxford Street (visited by thousands of shoppers per day, not to mention thousands more retail workers), levels are regularly more than THREE times the legal limit. PM10 and PM2.5 levels regularly exceed legal limits.


  1. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/cyclist-reveals-filthy-face-masks-after-commuting-in-london-9901951.html 

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Laurent Pignon

Born in 1980 in France. Got lost in Finland in 2002. Living in Sweden since 2005. Daily, year-round, rain snow or shine bicycle commuter since 2012. And yes, that’s lots of dates.

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