Unsafe at Any Speed

Every afternoon, scores of joggers run along the banks of the Charles to improve their health, while crew team members scull on the river. The ironic truth is that these athletes may be doing more harm to their systems than good by exercising in the vicinity of Memorial Drive and Storrow Drive during rush hour.

At the request of the University, carbon monoxide levels were measured last week in Watson Rink, along the banks of the Charles and at other locations, under the direction of John Spengler, professor of Public Health. Potentially hazardous levels of carbon monoxide (CO) were found in the skating rink and levels exceeding National Air Quality standards were found in other locations.

Carbon monoxide is a noxious gas which binds hemoglobin and prevents the uptake of oxygen. When an athlete is exposed to moderate amounts of CO he may suffer headaches and nausea, decreased visual acuity and reduced maximal work rates. As a consequence, the athlete is not able to judge time intervals correctly and his response time is decreased. In addition the athlete risks coronary artery disease. Harvard athletes are exposed to significant amounts of carbon monoxide when exercising in Watson Rink or running along the Charles--and the effects are magnified due to their increased breathing rate.

In Watson Rink the ice cleaning machine and cigarette smoke produce unsafe carbon monoxide levels. Air testing has shown that at ice level the average carbon monoxide level was 63 parts per million (ppm) during game time and reached as high as 192 ppm during peak levels of activity.


For the hard-breathing Harvard hockey team these levels are dangerous. For instance, a Harvard iceman whose ventilation rate reaches 25 litres per minute after 80 minutes, at exposures of 60 ppm will incur a 10 per cent carboxyhemoglobin level--10 per cent of his oxygen carrying hemoglobin is bound by carbon monoxide. This means that the Harvard player is receiving oxygen as if he were at 12,000 feet above sea level.

At these significant carbon monoxide levels the body is being seriously deprived of oxygen. The ability of a Harvard iceman to see a puck out of the corner of his eye is diminished. Other effects on the athletes' vision increase slowly. Furthermore, as the game progresses and the level of carbon monoxide rises, the athlete's maximal work output decreases--Harvard's hockey players are no longer able to perform as well, skate as fast or hit as hard. Thirdly, the player's ability to determine time intervals (i.e. the time from when he hears the slap of the puck off the stick of his defenseman to when he expects it to be at his skates) is distinctly affected at these carbon monoxide levels, due to central nervous system oxygen deprivation.

Harvard hockey players are risking more than just poor performances. Research shows that those players with a family history of heart disease and who may now have latent coronary heart disease may develop abnormal heart rhythms. Secondly, exposure to the carbon monoxide levels found in Watson Rink, by increasing the arteries' permeability to fats, increases the frequency of atherosclerotic diseases.

The banks of the Charles pose similar dangers. Carbon monoxide sampling that I did during the week of April 1 through April 9 showed CO levels of 25 ppm not uncommon during rush hour. For the one hour jogger, carbon monoxide levels found on the circuit exceed those of heavy cigarette smokers in some cases. For example, a person smoking three cigarettes in a row may produce carboxyhemoglobin levels of 7 per cent, corresponding to an altitude of 7000 feet above sea level. The physiological consequences are the same as those for the hockey player.

For the track team, training circuits along the Charles can have even more deleterious effects. Their maximum output will be rapidly diminished due to elevated carbon monoxide blood levels. Furthermore, the team risks the same long term health risks as the hockey players, coronary disease and heart amythmias.


Our report on carbon monoxide levels in Watson Rink and along the banks of the Charles, which was submitted yesterday to the University, includes the following five recommendations for minimizing the potential health hazards to Harvard athletes.

*Before final plans are made for the new athletic complex, the effects of different types of equipment and construction on carbon monoxide levels should be studied.

*An electric ice cleaning machine should be purchased for the new hockey rink to significantly reduce carbon monoxide levels or exhaust fans should be placed at rink level.

*Harvard's hockey team should submit to complete EKG exams, and pre-season and post-season hemoglobin and carboxyhemoglobin level counts.

*The maintenance of the Briggs Cage should be done without the current use of two gasoline powered tractors, or ventilation should be increased and the work done only early in the morning.

*The middle-aged Harvard community, those who are most susceptible to myocardial infraction, should be informed of the irregularities produced by exercising in a carbon monoxide rich environment.

Kevin R. Stone '77 is a concentrator in Biology.