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How Effective is Wearing Anti-Pollution Masks in Cities?

Not all face masks do a good job of keeping pollution out of your lungs. Here’s how to choose what is right for you.

Updated
Environment
3 min read
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Car fumes. Tar. Dust. Factory stacks. If you live in a city, your lungs are definitely soaking this pollution in its many forms. You may even be able to feel it as you climb four flights of stairs or make a weekend escape to Himachal.

Every year, air pollution is linked to around 7 million deaths, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

An issue like this is hard to tackle, as the recent Odd-Even experiments in Delhi show. There are many sources of air pollution, and levels of toxins from one pollutant to another differ. Dealing with one source of pollution isn’t enough.

Also Read: Dear Mr Kejriwal, Why Did You Think Odd-Even Would Work?

Though there are no easy solutions, there are a few things you can do for yourself to reduce the toxins you inhale during the day. Here’s what you need to know about air pollution masks.

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Not all face masks do a good job of keeping pollution out of your lungs. Here’s how to choose what is right for you.
A smoggy morning in New Delhi. (Photo: iStock)

What are the Consequences of Breathing in Polluted Air?

Air pollution can cause a wide variety of health complications. In addition to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases, pollution can weaken your immune system, trigger stroke, heart disease, and premature death.

The most dangerous air pollutants include ozone, carbon monoxide, and PM2.5 and PM10, particles so small they lodge themselves deep in your lungs.

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Not all face masks do a good job of keeping pollution out of your lungs. Here’s how to choose what is right for you.
Face masks can block out some of the bigger particles. (Photo: iStockphoto)
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Do Masks Actually Help?

Masks aren’t perfect, but they can filter out larger pollutant particles. Studies show that the effects of air pollution on blood pressure and heart rate are reduced in people who wear face masks.

That said, cleaner breathing can come at a cost. Many air pollution masks are hard to breathe through, so they aren’t ideal for exercise like running or biking. They can also make your face pretty sweaty.

Using roads with less traffic can help you breathe easier if you don’t think a face mask is for you.

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Masks come in a range of specifications from useless to pretty good for dealing with emission gases like nitrogen dioxide –  better masks have activated charcoal filters. For particulate matter, some masks will filter out the larger particles but none will deal well with the ultra fine particles.
Professor Frank Kelly, Director, Environmental Research Group, King’s College London, told the Evening Standard
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Not all face masks do a good job of keeping pollution out of your lungs. Here’s how to choose what is right for you.
Delhi’s dust can be pretty suffocating. (Photo: iStockphoto)
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How Do I Choose an Air Pollution Mask?

Basic, cheap, cotton masks don’t do much to keep pollution out. In many cases, you may as well put a scarf over your face.

The key is to find a mask that will fit tightly on your face – any gaps between your skin and the mask will just let pollution in. You might want to consider a face mask with a filter which can be removed. You’ll get a good look at the pollution you haven’t breathed in when you take the filter out. If you will be exercising out in the streets, look for a mask with good ventilation.

You can find cheap ones on Amazon and Flipkart.

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