A pocket respirator for bicyclists

Where I live in Portland, OR, the air is generally clear. There are very few days each year that I consider smoggy, although that’s coming from someone who grew up in the Los Angeles area in the 60s, where on one of the many bad smoggy days, you could only see about halfway down the block..

I want to show you a palm respirator I put together. You can make one too. Grab it when you hear the diesel school bus preparing to pass you, before the noxious cloud descends. But first you must read my diatribe.


We are all exposed to the concentrated toxic fumes of motor vehicles. Cars emit less fumes compared to years past. But when the engine is cold, or an old model car chugs its way past you, the air you are forced to breathe is about to get very unhealthy.

But the worst fumes come from diesel vehicles. You can hear it coming. It sounds like a bucket of bolts rattling, and evolves into an ear-splitting clattering with a whistling sound before it roars by. Next come the poisonous sooty fumes as it passes.

And when the clattering sound of a diesel approaching from behind tells me that I am about to get soaked in a cloud of carcinogenic particulates,  all I can do is try to get a few deep and relatively clean breaths before the deluge. After it passes and I can’t hold my breath any longer, I am forced to breathe the toxic cloud into my lungs. Somehow we just accept these sorts of toxic fumes in our public spaces, even though the technology for drastically reducing diesel exhaust can simply be bolted to the vehicle. It’s painful to see a crowd of children lingering about the school bus, breathing the carcinogenic soot deep into their developing lungs. Here is an interesting primer on diesel air pollution in Oregon.

I grew up in an era where walking or bicycling to school was the usual thing to do. It was the age where nobody used helmets. Or bicycle respirators. My grade school had a bike rack complex that could hold up to a hundred bikes! Even on rainy days there were dozens of bikes there. Today, that school has no bike racks. At all.

Meanwhile, to avoid the toxic fumes we must filter the air we breathe. While big and awkward, a face mask respirator is one option.

This stylish device will eliminate the fear you have of motor vehicle exhaust pipes.

It’s the perfect device for pedaling around Beiging, China, or where the air is uniformly terrible.  I have found the GVS elipse works the best for me when I work around a table saw or in dusty conditions. Low profile and very comfortable. I can pull it down and out of the way easily, as needed, but leaving it on for hours is not a problem.

There are bicycle-specific masks you will find on the internet. They tend to make you look like you are fleeing a hazmat incident, or are preparing to rob a bank. The smaller ones lack an exhalation valve, which is a problem. If you are going to the trouble of filtering your air, you want to do it right.

But I was looking for something to get me through the minute or two after a smoky diesel vehicle passes me until the air clears. So I attached a nasal CPAP nose mask to a single respiratory cartridge. 

A CPAP nasal mask
A nasal CPAP mask nose fitting, with a respirator filter attached. I just taped it on the back. CPAP masks are medical equipment normally sold by prescription. Maybe a medical equipment supplier will sell you or give you just the nose fitting. Or you can find one on craigslist. Or your uncle has a spare.


Taped to a single standard replacement respirator cartridge. A single cartridge is enough. Barely.


When that blue cloud is headed my way, I grab this unit and slap it on my nose, and hold it there every time I inhale. The air I breathe thru my nose then becomes sweet and clear! I exhale thru my mouth.

It’s a bit weird to do this and I have to hold it over my nose with each breath. Doing this leaves only one hand on the handlebar. I ease up on pedaling effort since I don’t want to breathe in thru my mouth. The key is having it accessible, like hanging on the handlebar, or in a top tube bag.

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