Air

Can masks save you from pollutants in the air?

While the effectiveness of anti-pollution masks cannot be denied, they are not the permanent solution against air pollution

 
By Nikita Lamba
Last Updated: Wednesday 16 November 2016
A variety of masks with different specifications have been doing the rounds in the market (Credit: Arnab Pratim Dutta/CSE)
A variety of masks with different specifications have been doing the rounds in the market (Credit: Arnab Pratim Dutta/CSE) A variety of masks with different specifications have been doing the rounds in the market (Credit: Arnab Pratim Dutta/CSE)

Two weeks after Diwali, the capital is still reeling with unprecedented amount of air pollution. Apart from the firecrackers, crop burning in Punjab and Haryana have also been identified as major pollutants scouring the air and finding way into the lungs.

According to the National Air Quality Index, the pollution levels in the capital have been as much as 14-16 times the limit prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO). The chief pollutants in the atmosphere currently are particulate matter (PM) 2.5 and PM 10. Carcinogenic gases such as benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are also present. People are resorting to masks and respirators that can filter out harmful particles from the air, making it relatively breathable.

A variety of masks with different specifications have been doing the rounds in the market. The N series masks like the N95 and N99 are effective against particulate matter, heavy metal gases and aerosols. The N99 mask filters 99 per cent of the pollutants in the air and costs around Rs 175. A cheaper variation, the N95 mask filters 95 per cent of the total particulate matter. It is readily available at local pharmacies and for Rs 100 on res

The demand for anti-pollution masks has spiked after the recent episode of high air pollution in New Delhi. Jai Dhar Gupta, CEO of Nirvana Being, a company that sells Vogmasks in India, says their product has been in great demand. “We are sold out in India, and we have exhausted our inventories in Singapore and have now moved into China.”

Due to the shortage of masks, people have turned to online stores. Amit Bhardwaj, 23, who managed to get an N95 mask off the counter, says, “Even though the masks are uncomfortable, they are better than the air outside and make it easier to breathe.”

Checking its certification is key before buying a mask, experts say. T K Joshi, director of Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the Maulana Azad Medical College says, “Typically a NIOSH certification is optimum and that mask can be considered to be effective.

Another factor that should be considered before buying a mask is its fit. Jai Dhar Gupta says, “A mask that does not fit well will have no purification effect over the air being inhaled and that is why we have 5 sizes in masks from XS to XL.”

Emergency measure or permanent solution?

Gupta says that the activated carbon filters in two-way masks (with a separate exhale valve) filter poisonous gases such as NO2, SO2 and volatile organic compounds, amonh others.

Arpit Verma, who is using a N95 mask to protect himself against polluted air, still complains of having a sore throat.

Air pollution masks, thus, cannot be a permanent solution. “Air masks can only give partial protection, additionally those who are going through some respiratory conditions will find it difficult to use the masks for prolonged periods as it hinders breathing and oxygen intake,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of Research and Advocacy at Center for Science and Environment (CSE).

Joshi concurs, “To be able to breathe air that is free of gases like benzene, a person will have to carry respirators which weigh a few tonnes, something that is practically impossible.”

A study conducted by the University of Edinburgh in Beijing in 2012 concludes that reducing exposure to pollution, even if it through personal intervention with the help of facemasks reduces health risks.

The masks may become cumbersome, as frequent replacements (washing in case of masks with replaceable filters) are required. They may not be an effective long-term solution to the problem of increasing air pollution, but their effectiveness cannot be denied.

The real solution, as Roychowdhury explains, is reducing exposure and cleaning the air.

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