Athletics legend and women’s marathon record-holder Paula Radcliffe knows firsthand the physical impacts of poor air quality.
When she was 14 years old, after moving house, she began to experience dizziness, shortness of breath and even blackouts after her runs. After one particular training session, as she climbed the stairs to where her mother stood waiting at the top, she blacked out and fell backwards down the stairs.
The diagnosis: exercise-induced asthma triggered by a combination of pollution, pollen and dust.
Radcliffe shared this story at the first World Health Organization Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in her new role as UN Environment Advocate for Clean Air, joining fellow asthmatic Haile Gebrselassie as IAAF Ambassador to lead the race for a pollution-free planet and healthy environment for runners.
“When I was in Beijing in 2015 for the IAAF Athletic Championships, one week before, after my run, I had severe headaches, nausea, felt really lethargic through the whole of the day. The minute the measures came into place to protect the athletes when the championships started, in terms of cutting the traffic on the roads, closing factories– basically reducing air pollution– those symptoms disappeared,” she recalled, speaking to UN News on the sidelines of the recent first WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva.
That experience was among several that convinced her that change was possible and made her an avid advocate against air pollution.
Distance athletes like marathoners and cyclists bear the brunt of poor air quality.
“As athletes, with our training and competitions, we take in ten times as much air when we run than when doing something else and so air pollution poses a threat to our health,” said Radcliffe.
“I want to improve the situation for runners all around the world in my role as Clean Air Advocate and IAAF Ambassador. Until the next generation of athletes can run in clean air, I commit to help lead the fight against air pollution,” she said.
“(Runners) notice it more when we arrive in a city and we go training there, because on the day of the actual marathon, the roads and streets are closed, which shows that something can be done– for example, the day of the London marathon, in the year that that takes place, is probably the cleanest day of the year in terms of air quality in the city of London, because there are no cars on the streets, there are only the runners,” she told UN News.
Athletes, Radcliffe said, can play a pivotal role in helping us further understand the impact of poor air quality on long term health.
“It’s especially important now, as more people run for exercise and leisure than do any other sport combined– an estimated half a billion of them around the world,” she said.
"We all have a right to breathe clean air!"
— United Nations (@UN) November 3, 2018
The announcement came days before the IAAF installed its second air quality monitor, this one at Addis Ababa Stadium in the Ethiopian capital, part of the IAAF’s five-year partnership with UN Environment to gather data and create greater global awareness of air pollution through the creation of an air quality monitoring network that will eventually link 1,000 IAAF-certified tracks around the world.
The pilot programme, part of a partnership between UN Environment and the IAAF, launched in May 2018 with the installation of the first device at the Stade Louis II in Monaco in September.
“They will provide data on where we need to act the most, and which are the safest times in the day, which helps to understand more about damage on athletes’ bodies and brains,” said Radcliffe.
“Somebody who’s running at 70 per cent of their maximum oxygen uptake for around 3 hours— they are inhaling the same amount of air as a sedentary person will do over two days. So we really have to do something to protect the people exercising in these conditions,” she said.
By engaging a community of professional athletes, national athletics federations, local and national governments, community leaders and the growing number of people worldwide who choose to run as their main form of exercise, the IAAF pledged to support UN Environment’s BreatheLife campaign and to contribute key data in the battle to combat air pollution.
According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk of our time with 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathing unsafe air.
Every day, around 93 per cent of the world’s children under the age of 15 years (1.8 billion children) breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk. Around seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air, both indoor and outdoor.
“Knowing firsthand the effects that air pollution has on the human body as an elite athlete, Paula is a great person to take the message far and wide. Air pollution must be seen for what it is – a dangerous public health crisis,” said Head of UN Environment, Erik Solheim.
Among her many long-distance running achievements, Paula set her first world record in winning the Chicago Marathon in 2002 and won the London Marathon in 2002, 2003 (improving the World Record) and 2005. She won the New York City Marathon on three occasions (2004, 2007 and 2008). In 2005, she became International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Champion over the marathon distance in Helsinki, Finland.
In other achievements, Paula was awarded a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2002 and later that year was voted the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year and was also the IAAF female athlete of the year. She currently serves as member of the IAAF Athletes Commission.
UN Environment press releases: Athletics legend Paula Radcliffe joins fight for clean air
Banner photo by Jon Skilling/CC BY-ND 2.0.