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So in riding to work on a daily basis, do the physiological benefits gained from cycling to work get outweighed by the harm that pollution does to the body? I.e. does it cause more harm that it prevents.

My concern is that when riding to work, I am breathing harder and riding with the daily traffic, so exposing myself potentially to higher levels of pollution than I would riding on a weekend day or away from heavy traffic. This has the potential for causing respiratory issues, especially in Arizona where dust particles can cause irritation. Does this concern negate the positive benefits such as increased respiratory capacity, reduced blood pressure, etc.?

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I don't have access to sources right now, but generally speaking the net effect of cycling is about 13 minutes of lifespan gained per mile ridden (or roughly 2.5 hours of lifespan gained per hour of cycling, compared to a sedentary lifestyle). The health benefits of cycling without question greatly outweigh the net of all additional risks combined. This is, of course, on average, so specific cases may vary; I make no claims as to the safety of cycling the wrong way down streets on a smoggy day in Beijing while drunk. –  Stephen Touset Jun 25 '13 at 16:26
    
(upvoting the above comment for that hilarious "specific case") –  dsalo Jun 25 '13 at 16:52
    
Yeah, depends on where you're riding. In Beijing just stepping outside for five minutes takes a year off your life. (Note that the human body can handle ordinary non-industrial dust quite effectively, however.) –  Daniel R Hicks Jun 25 '13 at 19:39
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Be aware also that some of the losses are unevenly distributed. Statistically every cyclist loses a few seconds of life per kilometre ridden to motorist mayhem, but that is distributed as a very few cyclists losing all their life while the rest lose none. –  Mσᶎ Jun 25 '13 at 23:18
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While silicosis is mostly an industrial disease, natural sand dust can also cause problems. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silicosis#Desert_lung_disease en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_pneumonia (Though in the case of the Dust Bowl, you could argue that over-farming is industrial, not natural.) From azdot.gov/ccpartnerships/haboob, the main danger of dust storms is poor visibility, but there are other health risks: usatoday30.usatoday.com/weather/storms/story/2012-07-27/… –  armb Jun 29 '13 at 7:41
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up vote 17 down vote accepted

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2920084/ - "On average, the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks relative to car driving for individuals shifting their mode of transport."

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22124913 - "We estimate that beneficial effects of increased physical activity are substantially larger (3-14 months gained) than the potential mortality effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (0.8-40 days lost) and the increase in traffic accidents (5-9 days lost)."

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21816732 - "Public bicycle sharing initiatives such as Bicing in Barcelona have greater benefits than risks to health"

(Maybe your Arizona dust is an exception though. And dust masks do make it harder to breathe hard comfortably.)

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Excellent answer. Actual science, with references! I like it. –  Mσᶎ Jun 25 '13 at 23:19
    
stand back. I am going to try science store.xkcd.com/products/try-science –  robthewolf Jun 26 '13 at 6:58
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