Much emphasis is placed on healthy eating, and rightly so. But what about healthy breathing? Unlike our stomachs, we have very little control over what fills our lungs, except for occasionally filtering out the worst with air conditioners or dust masks.

article air pollution Eke Miedaner flickr smoke rising river mountains Flickr
Smoke rises into the morning air in Wipkingen suburb in Zürich, Switzerland.
Photo Eke Miedaner / Flickr

Now that most of us live in or near cities, our weekend escapes are something we look forward to, even crave.

We are drawn to the big skies, the dark nights unsullied by light pollution, and what seems to be clean country air. Back in the city, we eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink enough fluids, and exercise regularly, but don’t pay much mind to one vital aspect of our existence: the air we breathe.

Our city lungs

We spend the vast majority of our time breathing in urban air, which leaves a lot to be desired. Outdoors, we are exposed to the dust and emissions from vehicles, both near and distant, as well as industrial pollution. Indoors, we breathe in particles from chemical cleaners, air fresheners, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and nano-particles from wall paints, third-hand cigarette smoke, and plastic-based carpets and fittings.

In a warped way, we are the filters: our lungs breathe in dirty air, trap it in our tissues, and we breathe out cleaner air. This is hardly the way we want to treat our lungs when we spend so much time training them to power us in our trail running.

A powerful way to get a sense of what’s actually in our air is to go outside in the dark with a torch. You’ll be shocked to see how many larger particles are visible, but it’s the unseen ones, those just a few microns in size, that are most harmful.

article air pollution flickr Darko Stojanovski city of Tetovo in North Macedonia residential area
The city of Tetovo in the Republic of North Macedonia is one of the most air polluted cities in Europe. But the air where you are doesn’t have to be this dismal for it be causing long-term harm.
Photo darko stojanovski / flickr

How serious is it?

There are some who prefer to remain ignorant of unpleasant things. Unfortunately, ignorance provides zero protection. The WHO reported in 2018 that around seven million people die annually of air pollution causes, and that nine out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. That probably includes you and everyone in your family.

Another study in 2018, in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that “fossil fuel combustion byproducts are the world’s most significant threat to children’s health and future.”

The researchers estimated that during 2015, around 8.8 million people died as a consequence of air pollution. This represents the shortening of global life expectancy by almost three years, on average.

The greatest effect that air pollution had on health was related to cardiovascular diseases, which accounted for 43% of these global deaths.

It’s no surprise that smokers make up 90% of lung cancer deaths. The remainder include second-hand smoke victims, and those who are exposed to polluted air.

What should make air pollution a concern for everyone is that it has far-reaching effects. It doesn’t respect borders, upmarket neighbourhoods, your age, fitness, or how serious you are about your health. It affects us all.

Air pollution chokes a German city. Photo Bernd Wilkens / Flickr
Air pollution chokes a German city.
Photo Bernd Wilkens / Flickr

A recent local case

This became a reality for hundreds of thousands of people living in the Durban Metro area in July 2021. The 11-day-long discharge of airborne pollutants from the UPL (United Phoshorous Limited) warehouse in Cornubia, Durban, was caused by arson during the attacks against civil society that month.

Inadequate safety measures to prevent spillages allowed highly toxic chemicals to flow into the Ohlanga estuary in the water the fire fighters used to fight the flames. But the warehouse’s contents continued to smoulder. Durban’s citizens, in roughly a 20km radius, were exposed to a toxic airborne brew of pesticide residues.

According to The Daily Maverick, some of the chemicals are banned for their harmful long-term effects by countries in the developed world. They obtained a list of 1,600 line items stored at the time of the blaze. (If you’re wondering, they also have storage facilities in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and PE.)

Some trail runners who were affected include Tony Lewis, who told us that the “Umhlanga area was particularly bad. The initial smell of highly contaminated air forced us to live with closed windows and doors. And once this smell lifted we had to breathe in the smell of decaying fish which had washed up as a result of the poisoned estuary. A very sad, stressful time.”

This writer’s experience was similar. You’d think 20km away from the blaze would be enough to be safe, but no. I sensed the strong chemical/plastic smell in the early hours of Monday 12 July.

It became so strong despite all windows being closed, that I had to place a wet face cloth over my face to sleep on the first night. The air outside was a dense white haze, as thick as any mist I’ve seen. The next day, in the early morning sunlight, I could not see more than 100m away.

The haze only lifted at 11am. After the second night being the same, I evacuated my home for five days until the wind changed direction.

Good air quality is something I value as much as eating well and exercising. My father died in his late sixties from cancer of the larynx, caused by smoking and working in the toxic air environment of factories.

Air pollution elsewhere in South Africa

Cape Town trailie Filippo Faralla said “What Durban experienced in July 2011 is what the population of the eastern Highveld lives with every day of their lives, just so that you and I can have electricity in our homes.

“I lived in the Witbank area many years ago and the air pollution (day and night) is nothing less than toxic. Everything from mercury, cadmium, sulphur and nitrous oxides, and ultra-fine particulate matter. The poor quality of coal burned by Eskom, which is the primary cause of the pollution, would never be allowed in Europe, US, Japan, and even China.”

Laura Bannatyne of Grahamstown recalls an issue with the burning municipal dump: “During the worst time, in 2019, I experienced a sudden lung affliction so severe that I could literally not stand up to be X-rayed due to the pain of trying to breathe. I doubt it was a coincidence, and I’ve had a low-grade cough ever since.”

But air pollution doesn’t only come from car exhausts, burning rubbish, power plants, factories, or cigarette smoke. It can come from what might be considered ‘natural’ sources: burning plant matter like wood and charcoal for cooking fires (this includes braais) and the smoke from grass and forest fires. Over a large enough area, these can seriously affect both our health and our leisure plans.

air pollution man male runner with-face mask woods running

Unfit for running

Since trail runs often sprawl over large tracts of land, the chances of runners running through poor air quality areas is increased. A famous example is the cancellation of The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler outside San Francisco in November 2018.

Forest fires in the area caused dense smoke, making conditions unfit for any life form with lungs to be in. David Roche (Meg Mackenzie’s mentor coach) wrote an excellent article for Trail Runner magazine titled Should You Run in Smoky Air? Probably Not.

Roche wrote: “The major public health concerns associated with smoke stem from fine particulate matter with diameters less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5). Particulates from smoke are so small that they can burrow deep in the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, causing local and systemic inflammation and circulatory issues.

“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) breaks down exposure to air pollutants like PM2.5 into an Air Quality Index (AQI) number, which standardises health risks and exposures. Over 100 is generally unhealthy for sensitive groups. When The North Face made the decision to cancel the race, the AQI was around 200, or simply unhealthy for all individuals.”

He then analysed several individual studies as well as a review of 238 other studies which show how harmful breathing in PM2.5 particles is. One was a 2017 study in China, which had 55 healthy students split into two groups. This first group had filtered air with levels of 24.3 ug/m3, while the second had unfiltered air at 53.1 ug/m3.

Roche said: “Subjects in the untreated environment had significant increases in cortisol, cortisone, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, along with higher blood pressure, hormones, insulin resistance, and biomarkers of oxidative stress and inflammation.” He added: “For comparison, San Francisco was at 179 ug/m3 as of… November 14.”

Breathing plastic?!

In our modern world, we’re figuring out how to solve the plastic problem. It’s more than the plastic in our landfills, agricultural soils, and waterways. It’s in the air we breathe too. We reached out to international expert Dr Steve Allen, who received his doctorate on microplastic and nanoplastic transport from the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom and now researches at Dalhousie University in Canada.

His paper ‘Atmospheric transport and deposition of microplastics in a remote mountain catchment’ was published in the world’s most prestigious journal, Nature.

He conducted this study in the French Pyrenees with wife Dr Deonie Allen and six other scientists. They concluded that airborne microplastic particles can be carried through the atmosphere to be deposited in remote areas at least 95km away.

Dr Allen told us: “More recent research has shown this material can travel around the globe.

“Prince or pauper, we all breathe air, and whilst humans have evolved to thrive on planet Earth, the one thing we have not managed is to tolerate air pollution. Even wood smoke harms us despite us having had millennia to learn to adapt to it. Plastic in our air is so new that we are still just learning how to measure it, let alone work out what the effects are. But it is hard to imagine a statement starting with ‘The health benefits of breathing plastic are…'”

Allen continued: “Plastic is used in almost everything we do. We assume heavily polluted littered places increase exposure, and that may be the case. But our clothing, carpets, bedding, car seats, and a million other items release microplastics into the air, along with the phthalates and flame retardants that are in them.”

“Recent studies are finding plastic in human lungs, which confirms Pauley et al 1998 findings.

article air pollution x-ray
The air we breathe has a long-term cumulative effect on our lungs – and our overall health and quality of life.
Photo Vyacheslav Onishchenko / flickr

Trojan horses

Allen said that plastic particles also pick up whatever chemicals they come into contact with. “PCBs, lead, arsenic, DDT, and others have all been shown to stick to microplastics. That makes them the perfect carrier to deposit these chemicals into our bodies.

“The smaller pollution particles below PM2.5 have been shown to enter every organ in the body, which is why non-communicable deaths from air pollution are so hard to track. It is hard to prove one chemical or material did ‘X’ when we are exposed to so many other airborne pollutants and what’s in our food and water.”

He said that a recent study found microplastics and PFAs (carcinogenic, mutagenic, flame retardant ‘forever’ chemicals) in faecal matter from newborn babies.

“How it got there is the subject of future work, but as microplastics and chemicals have been found in umbilical and placental serums, it is likely the baby was exposed before it was born. What the female hormone replicating phthalates (BPA, BPB) in plastic could do to a developing brain makes you shudder, since nanoplastics below one micron could go anywhere in our bodies, including the pituitary gland, which produces many of our hormones.”

He continued: “There is currently so much plastic in the air that recent research on exposure to plastic fibres from wearing masks showed that even though the mask is made of plastic fibres, it actually reduced the number of plastic fibres inhaled. A Chinese study in Beijing found particle counts of more than 5,000 plastic particles per cubic metre of air.

“We are not saying all plastic is bad and we are not suggesting humans return to the Dark Ages. More than half of all plastic produced (nine billion tonnes) has been since 2002 and those of us who remember it, know that life was quite fine without the plastic items we are told are essential now.

“We do suggest minimising exposure until science has worked out if, or how bad it is. Your trail running gear is likely made of plastic, your water bottles may say BPA-free on the label, but there is no proof the other thousands of phthalates they replaced it with are safe.

“If you want to do something positive for the planet, petition your government to get the plastic pollution problem under control. People joke that the plastic bag on a thorn bush is South Africa’s native flower, but think about it, you are breathing it in as it disintegrates in the sun.

“Not only that, millions of particles are released into the air and water of our planet from that single packet, and in a few weeks, particles could be in India picking up some PCBs, then be blown to South America to pick up some mercury from a gold mine, before coming back to you.

“It’s in our ground water and I recently showed that it is coming back out of the sea into the air. There are no borders or barriers to plastic pollution. There is no ‘away’. Plastic production and subsequent burning is directly linked to the release of greenhouse gases.”

Allen sums it up perfectly: “The sooner humans realise we live on a very delicate ball under a very small bubble, the sooner we will start trying to fix it.”

fire smoke prevent pollution Berea Mail newspaper
Work with your local media to highlight and douse illegal urban burning by individuals – and maybe even your own municipality.
Photo Lauren Walford / Berea Mail

What can you do?

KEEP IT NATURAL: Stick to parks, open spaces, and your favourite trails as much as possible.

DODGE THE TRAFFIC: Avoid rush hour and plan your route to avoid any areas of traffic congestion where vehicles sit idling.

EARLIER IS BETTER: Traffic is lighter and pollution levels are lower early in the morning.

RUN IN OR RIGHT AFTER RAIN: Check the weather forecast and understand the impact weather has on air quality. Rain washes away pollutants and improves air quality.


  • Wind is great at dispersing pollution but can also blow up dust in dry areas and bring pollutants in from another area, such as smoke from a large fire.
  • Avoid running in the middle of the day especially on hot and sunny days – high temperatures trigger chemical reactions with pollutants.
  • Hazy winter days are an indication of poor air quality, as pollution and smoke is trapped beneath a temperature inversion. Wait until it lifts if possible.

CHECK THE AIR QUALITY INDEX: Visit and use their phone app. When unhealthy AQI levels are predicted, reduce the intensity or length of your runs or exercise indoors.

LOBBY: Contact your ward councillor to report local air pollution, and log a report on the South African Air Quality Information System website

WORK WITH MEDIA: Contact local news journalists and tell them your story. The writer did this in 2019 and the resulting newspaper publicity was successful in curbing the regular burning of so-called waste in the adjoining cemetery, which would have been better composted.

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