Thursday, April 16, 2009

Black Lungs

I love running along the Memorial Park bike trails. (I live in Houston, Texas.) I tripped over a tree root and almost broke my left arm recently, but I'm confident I'll keep running there. The bike trails wind deep into the city forest, and newbies are always afraid of getting lost. Under the forest canopy, I'm protected from sudden subtropical downpours, but I'm also protected from the intense summer sun -- the air is markedly cooler inside the forest than out, and the broad leaves of the giant deciduous trees around me absorb the brunt of the midday sun.

Last week, I decided to run along the official running trail of Memorial Park, and I was disgusted by the smell of exhaust from passing cars, and by the smell of charcoal burning at a nearby BBQ restaurant (it was noonish). It forced me to detour through a narrow strip of woods between two streets, and I noticed an immediate difference in air quality! The air was noticeably cleaner inside the woods. I soon reached the opposite side, and the air reeked again (this time, of lawnmower and trimmer exhaust, since I had entered a residential area). I jogged a bit through the neighborhood, then turned back. As I approached the narrow woods, a pileated woodpecker spanned the mouth of the trail! Beautiful: a black and white blur trailing a splash of red.

There was no shortage of runners along the official running trail. There never is a shortage of them, and this fact never ceases to amaze me. It's a universal law that people have no qualms about running alongside busy streets. This trail reminded me of the very popular one around Rice University. I ran there once, with a friend, and I swore to myself to never run around Rice again. I've run through Rice many times, but I'm the only person who does this, to my knowledge -- I've never encountered other runners within the Rice campus. However, a train of runners surrounds the campus at almost all hours, running along busy, ugly, noisy, smelly streets, and totally missing the beauty and better air quality within.

There was a recent New York Times article about measurable levels of nicotine byproducts in NYC nonsmokers; I've often wondered if "sidewalk runners" are similarly affected by motor vehicle exhaust.

Up to 15% of lung cancers arise in people who have never smoked. Interestingly, peanut butter (and other natural sources of vitamin E) may protect against development of lung cancer.

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