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 

cyclist reveals filthy air filter after sitting on his couch drinking coffee in Stockholm

I was not sure how to begin a post on air quality in Stockholm and since Black (Smoke) Friday was a week ago I could not use that for an introduction either. But then I read this.

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.1

Anti-pollution mask, air filters, London
Air pollution: a mask before travelling (left), mask from cycling (one week, centre) and mask from travelling on the train (one week, right)

Cycling advocacy groups campaign for wearing helmets and high visibility clothing while riding but never or rarely talk about the crap we breathe along the way. Every day I read about yellow vests and how they’re supposed to make cyclists more visible during Stockholm dark winters (given that the other person is looking in the right direction obviously) but I haven’t read a single article on air quality in central Stockholm lately that did not end with that one old plan: “we really should start looking into starting to think about banning studded tyres in the city center… next year… or the year after.”

Air quality in Stockholm is not as bad as in London one might say (it was in the news sometime ago on some website somewhere) but air quality in Stockholm is far from perfect either.

Cyclist reveals filthy air filter after sitting on his couch drinking coffee in Stockholm

Now, ladies and gentlemen, please let me show you the anti-pollution filter that sits between the couch I drink coffee on and the wild world outside.

Anti-pollution filter, Stockholm
According to the manufacturer’s recommendation that filter should be replaced once a year but not only did I not think it would turn black that quick, I did not even know there was a filter I needed to check once in a while.

Long story short, this one was last replaced sometime between 2008 and 2012 and is already black as coal. I’m getting a new one as soon as possible and the air quality around the couch will definitely improve but what about when I’m out walking, riding or just having a drink on the balcony?

Last time I checked lungs, bronchioles and windpipes could not be ordered from the Internet like spare parts for ventilation systems can and there’s a good chance they were not made to filter as much crap as they nowadays should. There are 17 different classes of air filters available on the market but only one for lungs. One that, unlike helmets and high visibility vests, doesn’t get much media exposure and is seldom brought to the public’s attention by all the new cycling experts in town.

At the end of the day it’s up to everyone to decide which piece of “safety” equipment should be acquired first but I know I’d buy and wear an anti-pollution mask before any sort of neon yellow jacket. So what about you? Do or would you wear an anti-pollution mask when cycling? Do you think the City of Stockholm and Naturskyddsföreningen should give some away in their “Thank you for cycling” goody bags next Spring?


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

the Obama effect

I would be very much surprised if Barack Obama and Fredrik Reinfeldt discussed liveable cities, bicycle commuting and the absolute absurdness of tiny narrow sidewalks in city centres but I’m pretty sure they did not bring these subjects up over diner.

The Obama Effect

And that is very unfortunate considering what Stockholmers and newspapers keep talking about since the City of Stockholm returned to its former self: The Obama Effect1.

The Obama Effect (also known as Circus Obama) is a paradoxical reaction observed in Stockholm for the first time in September 2013. Motorised traffic was limited and roads in the city centre were blocked to make room for Barack Obama’s bulletproof vehicle and better ensure his safety (???). Thanks to the King of the United Kingdoms of Carmerica Stockholmers had the chance to enjoy, for a short while, a city where public spaces were for people and not for cars; a city where it was, for a change, possible to breath clean air.

Unfortunately good things don’t last forever and there ain’t no such thing as car-free days2 in Stockholm even though 70% of the population (who reads Dagens Nyheter online) would like to see that happen. 70%. Seventy percent. Four of the seven political parties in Sweden are also in favour of one yearly car-free day and that number will probably increase as the next general election (in 2014) gets closer.

Car free day in Stockholm?
Should Stockholm be car-free once a year? 70% says YES

And yet the City of Stockholm doesn’t seem to be concerned by the opinion of its citizens and while other cities around the world will celebrate the now traditional car-free day, there is nothing planned for September 22 in a city which was awarded the first European Green Capital title in 2010.

But things could change and will hopefully change before 101% of the population and 8 of the 7 political parties can’t take it anymore. Otherwise I’ve already recorded a distress call: “Help us, Barack Obama. You’re our only hope.”

Note. When the post was published almost 10,000 people had answered the poll and the result is still the same, 70% says YES to a car-free day.


  1. http://www.dn.se/sthlm/fyra-av-sju-partier-vill-infora-bilfri-dag-i-stan/ 

  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Car-Free_Days 

yes we can

In case you hadn’t heard the President of the United States of America of Planet Earth (Barack Obama I think his name is) was in town for a couple of hours! Mr. Obama and a couple of hundred friends with sunglasses met with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and probably attended some other important matters but that’s what politicians do and I quite frankly don’t care.

On the other hand I was very much looking forward to seeing Stockholm City Centre in a new light with limited motorised traffic and complete parts of the city turned into cyclists and pedestrians only zones. The City of Stockholm does not seem to take many actions to accommodate the ever growing number of people who commute by bike each and every day (remember the one hundred metre white line on Götgatsbackan? Well my little girl has yet to work on it!) but when Circus Obama comes to town it’s a whole different story.

Circus Obama in Stockholm, Sweden

We’re anticipating a chaotic situation,” Anna Ekberg, spokeswoman at Trafik Stockholm, told The Local. “Lots of roads in the city centre will be blocked, there will be traffic jams.”
“You better not take the car, but go by bus or take the metro,” she said, adding that Stockholm’s public transportation system might get crowded as well.
The main roads between the Arlanda airport, north of the capital, and central Stockholm will be closed off as Obama’s motorcade heads in town to meet with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and other political leaders.
Areas including Nybrokajen, Hamngatan, the city centre, Gamla stan, and the area around the royal palace will be totally closed off to traffic.
Ekberg at the Transport Administration believes even commuters will feel the sting.
“If you don’t need to go to the city centre, you shouldn’t do it,” Ekberg said, adding with a laugh that those working in the city might be better to take the day off work. – Stockholm braces for Obama traffic circus

And it probably has been the best 24 hours cyclists and pedestrians have had for a very long time. Cyclists could ride on the streets, pedestrians could jaywalk as much as they wanted and, cherry on top, breath much cleaner air! Thanks to Circus Obama motorised traffic decreased by 40% for a couple of hours and, as a result, Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) emissions decreased by 30%1 on Sveavägen!


Wait. Could toxic emissions be linked to motorised traffic? Could we make Stockholm’s air cleaner just by reducing the number of cars and trucks in the streets and have people walk, ride bicycles and take public transportation instead? There was a way to verify that theory with the World Carfree Day coming up soon and so I asked the City of Stockholm.


https://twitter.com/StockholmsStad/status/374848654060056576

Yes we can or… we could but regular people with regular jobs don’t get to live in a carfree city and breath clean air. I’m afraid we’d all have to work in a travelling circus for that to happen. Hope you enjoyed the show because… it’s over. Applause.


  1. http://www.dn.se/sthlm/obama-rensar-luften-i-stockholm/