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Shocking right? It should be. Air pollution is no joke and it is growing at a rapid rate as cities become more compact, industrialized, streets thicken with carbon-emitting traffic and more people move to the cities for gainful employment.
As a preventative to inhaling that polluted atmosphere, the majority of the population in high-pollutant cities use respiratory protection as part of their daily routine, whether it be to drive down the street, walk through the park, or get the bus to work.
For those of you reading this article that live in a regional area where the air is clean, consider yourself blessed. The clean air is an enormous relief for many that leave the city and head into the country, away from the hustle and bustle of booming exhausts, churning industrial plants and the thick, ever-present smog that plagues many of our capital cities.
When I first moved to a city that had reports of polluted smog, I laughed it off. I thought to myself, ‘it’s just a fog that comes and goes‘. I was wrong. I spent six months traveling in China, which holds a majority of spots, alongside India, in the top 20 polluted cities in the world (I have included a table at the bottom of this post show them).
At first, when I landed in Handan (number 19 in the world), I called it a mere ‘fog’. It was a light haze that seemed to become an unnoticed everyday image after a while. It would blanket the city and all of its surrounding areas. No matter where you went, it was present, but it wasn’t too bad, and you didn’t smell it after a while. Of course, I was there during peak smog season which was worsened by a number of factors such as weather, fires, and wind.
I thought the smog wasn’t so bad. That was until I started to drive in thick traffic, which just added to the reason behind why so many locals don variables of the millions of derivates of the standard breathing mask. After my first day of driving through thick Chinese traffic (on a scooter of course), I had a sore throat and a cough for four days. Unbeknownst to me, my lungs had just become a filter for the 20 kilometers of driving I did without a face mask. That means my lungs were essentially filtering in exhausts from other scooters, thick plumes of smoke from aged transport trucks, dust from the dirty roads, and the ‘fog’ of pollution that lay around the city. Oh, and that’s not to mention the ripe things I would have breathed in driving through some of the rubbish dumping grounds (on the side of some main roads). Basically put, my lungs just filtered the contents of one of the world’s most polluted atmospheres. Great.
As soon as I started to feel my sore throat that night, my lack of education in this field simply put it down to me developing the flu. It didn’t even cross my mind that it might be a symptom of being a human vacuum cleaner in a bustling Asian city. I did end up buying a face mask the next day. This was no quality dust mask either. It was a stock-standard zero filtration piece of thick cloth with two straps for around the ears. But it did make some difference, at least I thought it did. It stopped dust and sand from getting in my nose and mouth but still left me with a sore throat and cough by the end of the week. At that point, I started to take respiratory protection a little more serious.
Over the course of a few good months, I worked my way through what would have been no less than 30 face masks, all designed with multi-layered materials that crisscross with fine fibers to catch very small particles. Exactly the thing I needed.
After working my way down through most of the locally available masks, my best find was the 3M N95 mask. It was also the best because it was the highest quality filter available on China’s streets. See, back at home in the US, it is a little easier to get these things online or in a store. But when you are in a different country things run a little less smoothly than you would like them to, so a 3M mask it was.
If my personal experience is not enough to go by, there are some other reasons why you need to get an anti-pollution mask for city smog. In saying all of this, I should let you know that I am not a medical professional, and the only background I have in respiratory work is through the military. But when it comes to pollution and masks, having lived in the worst, and researching about it, I can say I am pretty much all over the topic.
So let’s take a look at what you should know about toxic air-pollution.
Exposure to air pollution, whether it is for a short or much larger period of time, can have very detrimental impacts on the heart, lungs, and the brain as well. The American Heart Association found that exposure over a few hours to weeks can ‘trigger’ sickness. In the test, researchers found that even as rapidly as 1 or 2 hours after exposure to elevated levels of pollution in the atmosphere, there were acute increases in heart disease events such as breathing difficulties, lightheadedness, fatigue, nausea and pain in the upper body.
That was all within one hour. Which is not enough time for some to even land at the airport and buy a breathing mask. This means that if you are traveling to an area that has a high pollution count, you should buy a quality breathing mask in advance.
Even healthy people that are exposed to polluted atmospheres can experience a range of short-term and long-term symptoms from the exposure. For some, those are just short-term and those people will recover after taking the right protective measures and resting. However, for others, there are more long-term, and even permanent, side-effects of experiencing exposure to air pollution.
Of course, the actual risk and how your body responds depends on your level of health, the concentration of pollution, and the length of exposure you received. According to Spare The Air, high exposure levels, can cause cardiovascular and respiratory illness, stress to the heart and lungs, and damaged cells in the respiratory system. However, exposure over a long-term period can cause accelerated aging of the lungs, loss of lung capacity, development of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, shortened lifespan, and possible cancer-related issues.
There are so many suitable breathing masks that cater for anti-pollution protection out there. The biggest issue is, no matter how many I might be able to list that I have personally tried, you might not have any of them available in your city. This is especially the case if you are in another country, such as India, China, or Vietnam, all of which have cities with high pollution rates. Instead, what you should make sure you do is before you leave for those cities, get the right respiratory protection.
When you are stocking up on your injections, anti-malaria pills, and other travel-related health preventatives, a suitable anti-pollution mask should be on your list priorities too. Making sure you choose the right one is the difference between using what is effectively a piece of fabric with two ear straps, or an actual particle-filtering anti-pollution mask. On the outset, if you are shopping for masks, the one brand I will mention to look out for is 3M. They provide the majority of particle dust masks and respirators and are relatively affordable for being such a top provider. Many of their masks are disposable, simply because after a week of driving around in Chinese traffic on a bike, your filter will likely appear dark with the number of pollutant particles it has filtered. Using a new one ensures the efficient process of your filter to keep that pollution out of your body.
There are more comfortable filter options for people who exercise in these city environments or are after something that is smoother to wear, however, in those cases, finding replaceable filter parts might be a hassle if you are in a country where you cannot communicate in the same language. 3M’s masks seem to be available in most countries as they are a global manufacturer of a wide variety of safety and protective equipment. When you are looking around for their masks, choosing the N95 mask, which is a face mask that is able to filter 95% of particles larger than 0.3 microns in diameter – which covers pretty much all of the pollutant particles you will find floating around in city smog atmospheres.
If you are already in a foreign country and are trying to find a mask, ideally you want to buy something that uses multiple layers of fine fibers that act as a web to stop particles from entering through. While it might be nice to wear a cute mask over your face like you see some people do, this will not provide the right protection that you need. Instead, find something that is:
If you are unable to find something like that, your next best thing, as a temporary solution, is to use layers. For instance, a common option for some Chinese and Vietnamese locals is to use a tight-fitting surgical face mask that creates a seal. On its own, this is not suitable for filtering small particles as its specific use is made for operating environments to stop fluids from blood or cough droplets from flying into a medical professional’s mouth. Becuase this is not enough, locals would then wear another mask over it. The secondary covering mask can be one of those cheap cover masks that you would purchase on the roadside.
So what cities should you take precautions in if you are living there or going to travel to? Well first you should know that cities change in pollution levels all of the time, and even cities that might be close to you could potentially be hazardous environments. If you are suffering from asthma, for instance, you should remain away or use breathing protection when in areas that have high amounts of smog from regional fires or dust as this can cause severe reactions with exposure.
Staying up to date with the news and alerts over the radio and social media will ensure that you know if there are potential dangers in your city or any nearby cities. For instance, if there is a backburn from regional areas that has caused clouding of smoke in any residential areas the news will show an update to warn people with respiratory problems to either stay indoors, or seek protective wear with a breathing mask.
But what about cities with a high pollution count? Below is a table with cities ranked by the annual mean concentration of dangerous particles. These dangerous particles are referred to as PM2.5, this refers to the sizing of the particle, which for 2.5 is the measure of diameter in microns. Pollution particles range in sizes from 2.5 to 10 microns with some others ranging in sizes less than 2.5 microns. While all sizes are considered harmful, particles that are PM2.5 are considered more deadly as they are able to travel further into the lungs.
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If you are traveling to any city or country, do your research on pollution in that city and make sure you get a mask before you leave. For such a little price you can take the right precaution to keep yourself healthy and free from any respiratory issues from exposure to high levels of outdoor pollution. For such a small price it is definitely worth it.
If you are living in one one of these cities already and do wear an anti-pollution mask, ensure that what you are wearing is able to provide safe respiratory protection. You can do this by conducting the seal fit test, which is done by placing the mask over your face, holding the front of the mask and taking a deep breath in. If you find that there is air coming in through the sides, top or bottom, then there is unfiltered air coming through the mask and you are at risk and should consider finding a more appropriate anti-pollution mask.