25 August 2014

Barbeque fumes choke joggers at popular event

Environmental chemistry

Runners of Copenhagen's popular DHL Relay Race are exposed to so many particles that they might as well be exercising in diesel fumes on a train platform. That is according to measurements made by a University of Copenhagen chemistry student.

Light weight shoes and cast iron lungs

Maria Bech Poulsen is halfway through her graduate programme in environmental chemistry at Department of Chemistry at University of Copenhagen. During the summer of 2013, she conducted a study to investigate the concentration of particles in the air of Copenhagen’s Faelledparken as thousands of runners, colleagues and families gathered for the DHL Relay Race and barbecue. At the end of the day, her measurements revealed that the runners would have been better off with cast iron lungs.

“I had already taken particle concentration measurements along the Nørreport train platform. The platform is located in an enclosed space through which diesel locomotives constantly run. Nonetheless, I measured just as many particles along the DHL Relay Race route,” explains Maria Bech Poulsen.

If steaks are sizzling...run for your life

The infinitesimal particles measured by Poulsen, so-called ultrafine particles, are exceptionally hazardous to human health. Ultrafine particles are less than a micron (a thousandth of a millimeter) in diameter. So sized, they can access the deepest of recesses and alveoli in human lungs. Once there, they can trigger shortness of breath, as well as outright lung ailments, like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and bronchitis that typically affect smokers. Ultrafine particles can even migrate into the blood stream and cause blood clots and other heart/circulatory conditions.

More heavily polluted than major city roads

With her handheld particle counter in tow, Poulsen crossed the tightly packed traffic of Copenhagen’s Nørre Allé on her way into Faelledparken. Crossing the street, the counter registered up to 30,000 particles per cubic centimetre, a normal reading for the location. But as she rounded the first tent by the DHL race finish line, the numbers went berserk.

“The type of measuring device I used, a CPC or Condensation Particle Counter, computes an average concentration for each minute. The average number for areas where guests were grilling hot dogs was 250,000 – which is high. However, where the tents were nearest to the running route, the counter registered 300,000 particles per cubic centimetre,” explains Poulsen. “There is no doubt that the many barbecue set-ups released an enormous quantity of particles into the air.”

Social benefits more important than health risk

As a runner of the DHL relay race, one breathes fast and deep while passing the smoking barbecues. On the other hand, spectators are surrounded by the particles for a longer period of time. Maria Poulsen points out that she is a chemist, not a doctor. So, she is not willing to say whether it is more of a hazard to run or spectate. But the measurements would never scare her away from taking part in the event.

“It is a thought-provoking combination. One runs for health, but exposes oneself to hazardous particles. Regardless, it’s a fun and social event, and I ran it the day after taking my measurements,” Poulsen concludes.

The research project’s supervisor was Ole John Nielsen, Professor of atmospheric chemistry at the Department of Chemistry. The CPC measurement device was loaned from the Section of Environmental Health, at UCPH’s Faculty of Health and Medical Science’s Department of Public Health.


Maria Bech Poulsen, Msc student, Environmental Chemistry, mobile: +45 61260534

Jes Andersen, Communications Officer, mobile: +45 23601140