Is It Time To Start Wearing Anti-Pollution Masks?

I looked into the science and tried it out for a week.
24 February 2020, 9:00am
anti smog mask milan
THE AUTHOR ON A SUNNY DAY WITH SMOG ON THE HORIZON. Photo: VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

Sadly, the face mask industry is booming. In a year that's already given us the coronavirus and catastrophic bushfires against a choking backdrop of pollution, we're now experiencing a global run on masks that claim to keep both viruses and tiny dust particles at bay. Italy has the highest rate of deaths from air pollution in Europe, and despite cyclists in my home city of Milan having worn masks for a long time, they're still not common on the street. To find out if it was time to introduce the apocalyptic accessory to my own wardrobe, I needed to speak to the experts – and trial one myself.

Last March, the World Health Organisation declared air pollution responsible for around 80,000 deaths every year in Italy alone. For context, in 2018 in Italy there were 3,334 deaths from road accidents. And yet face masks have failed to infiltrate European culture as they have in Asia. The Japanese were the first to adopt mass use of face masks at the beginning of the 20th century, during the Spanish flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million worldwide. From the 1950s onwards, with post-war industrialisation, the phenomenon kept growing and then spread across the continent.

In Hong Kong, however, the masks have become one of the symbols of the recent anti-Chinese protests, so much so that the central government proposed to ban their use in public places. And in India, despite being the most polluted country in the world, medical authorities tend to minimise the air pollution problem, while citizens are priced out of buying proper masks.

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The author in her accessory for the week. Photo: VICE

Unfortunately, shops in Milan still don’t have a great selection, so I bought this sober black model (from a bookshop, of all places). Forget the white paper surgical masks you’ve probably seen on the street. They only stop the larger dust particles from getting in – as do your nose hairs, by the way. If you want your mask to be effective against pollution, you have to go for an N95 certified product (the international standard against tiny Pm10 and Pm2.5 particles). It's the same mask recommended for those who are realistically at risk of catching the coronavirus, such as medical personnel.

As I took my new mask out of its package, I smirked at the IKEA-level detail of the instruction sheet – like operating this thing was going to be difficult. Reader, it was difficult. Luckily there were two methods, because the first time I tried fitting the elastic bands around my ears, it fell off in seconds. First impressions weren't good: despite promising one-size-fits-all, the mask was too big for my face and impossible to wear without messing up my hair. Plus, I couldn't see below my nose.

Aesthetically speaking, I didn't mind wearing the mask, but on a social level it was a bit embarrassing – especially since my experiment unexpectedly coincided with the coronavirus outbreak. At the time, the virus was yet to hit Milan [things have since changed, with a sudden surge in cases making Italy the third-worst affected country] and I didn’t want to look like a fanatical germaphobe. But as I wandered around the city, only one person asked me if I was sick. One of my neighbours did pretend not to know me, although, perhaps they didn’t recognise me with a mask covering almost my entire face. Everyone else simply ignored me, sometimes after staring at me for a few seconds.

All that aside, I didn’t get the impression I was breathing any better. It felt like I had a hand lightly pressed over my mouth the entire time, with the added annoyance of needing to take it off whenever I wanted to blow my nose of have a drink of water.

To find out how useful the masks actually are for our health, I spoke to Alessandro Miani, president of SIMA, the Italian Society of Environmental Medicine. His answer was unequivocal: "They are useless, because they only stop pollen and larger dust,” he said, emphasising that the most harmful particles (Pm1 and smaller) are much smaller, and can reach the deep airways and “penetrate the blood and blood-brain barrier”.

In fact, according to Miani, few of the measures we are implementing have a significant impact on people's health: "Walking Sundays, alternating license plates or even banning smoking outdoors are all emergency measures," he said. "Without a serious long-term plan... it’s as if we had ten people smoking in one room and told one to go out, and thought we'd solved the problem."

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The author, in traffic.

Miani says we need a multi-year plan to reduce domestic heating emissions, for example by adding filtration systems to the top of buildings. He also suggested selective urban reforestation, focusing on tree species that help remove fine particles from the air.

Compared to previous years (and decades) the situation has improved. As a child growing up in Milan, I remember coughing repeatedly, and my distressed mother telling me not to breathe in as we passed spluttering car exhaust pipes.

But we shouldn’t relax. Miani explained that air pollution is not only linked to cardiovascular problems (including heart attack or stroke) or the respiratory system (including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or lung cancer), but also some neurodevelopmental disorders.

Unfortunately there’s more: according to Miani, if the air is polluted outside, inside it can be five times worse. External pollution that gets into homes and offices stays trapped, while other pollutants from cooking and cleaning products add to the mess.

There are some things we can do while we wait for more decisive political plans and futuristic masks equipped with sensors that detect dangerous substances. SIMA has practical advice, ranging from aerating rooms often, to avoiding the traffic rush hour and paying attention to when and where you exercise outdoors.

A week later, I wasn’t sure if my mask experiment had been a success. Opening the mask up, I noticed the filter hadn’t changed colour significantly – although the instructions said it should only need changing every six to eight weeks. I had however, felt its effects as a social firewall.

Personally, I don't think I'm ready to use the mask all the time. For now I'll just keep hoping for a serious plan to clean the air, or that I’m invited to an apocalypse-themed party.