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Most anti-pollution masks don’t work

The Annapurna Express

The Annapurna Express

Most anti-pollution masks don’t work

A man selling the common medical masks at Ratnapark, Kathmandu | Pritam Chhetri

A study published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology in 2016 showed the most inexpen­sive and most popular masks used in Nepal, China, India and South­east Asia are also the least effec­tive. In highly-polluted areas like Kathmandu, the most cost-efficient cloth mask offered between 39 and 65 percent protection against five various sized particles, says the study, while the woven polyester mask was between 78 and 94 per­cent effective. But as most of these masks are ineffective against par­ticulates smaller than 2.5 microns, which are also the most harmful to our health, they are as good as use­less, the study suggested. Unable to find a suitable mask to fight his dust-induced allergies, Tashi Gyalzen Sherpa decided to make them himself. Since 2014, his company, Metro-Mask, the makers of Nepal’s first high-tech anti-pollution masks, has been pro­ducing four different kinds, namely the Moto mask priced at Rs 3,500 per piece, the City and Urban at Rs 1,500 apiece and the Dispo at Rs 200-300 apiece.

 Dr Santosh Singh Thapa suggests masks with carbon filters that can absorb at least some of the PM 2.5 particles

“PM 2.5, the atmospheric sol­id particles present in the air and especially in the smoke emitted by vehicles and brick kilns, is absorbed by the masks’ carbon filter layers, purifying the air you breathe,” he says. “These masks are comfortable, washable and stylish, have replaceable filters and easily last a year.”

Another company which sells masks in Nepal is Venus Masks, a German brand whose major produc­tion takes place in Mumbai. “The Rs 200 Venus mask comes with a triple layer of carbon filter and has been widely accepted in Nepal. It can be used for a month and absorbs up to 96 percent of the PM 2.5 parti­cles,” claims Arjun Haniya, the sole importer and distributor of Venus masks in Nepal.

Dr Santosh Singh Thapa, a senior physician, advises people to wear masks with carbon filters that can absorb at least some of the harm­ful PM 2.5 particles. “Simple cloth masks barely protect you,” he says.


 Is the mask you are wearing protecting you?

 

 

 Multiple studies have shown Kathmandu to be one of the most polluted cities in the world. This has caused a mini-panic, and people have started wearing all kinds of masks to protect themselves

When he was elected the may­or of Kathmandu metropol­itan city in May 2017, Bidya Sundar Shakya had committed to making Kathmandu a ‘no-mask’ city. And yet the problem of air pollution in Kathmandu is getting only worse. The National Ambient Air Quality Standard 2012 has set the 24-hour limit of particulate matter PM 2.5, a major pollutant and health haz­ard, at 40 μg/m3, and of PM 10, another pollutant, at 120μg/m3. This is nearly twice the WHO limit, but even so, the valley’s pollution lev­el exceeds both these limits many times. Multiple studies have shown Kathmandu to be one of the most polluted cities in the world. This has caused a mini-panic, and people have started wearing all kinds of masks to protect themselves.

Masks are these days ubiqui­tous on the streets of the valley, and every other person seems to be wearing one—from the easily available disposable surgical masks to washable cloth masks, to the customized anti-pollution ones that come in a wide range of prices and designs.

Ishika Khadka, a first year student at Kathmandu Law School, has to travel all the way from Maitidevi to Bhaktapur for her classes. “It’s not an easy ride to college, with all the dust from road extension and smoke from vehicles. I use the Rs 10 surgi­cal mask. Don’t think it’s of much help. Still, something is better than nothing,” says Khadka.

Many people jog or take brisk walks in the mornings, primarily for health reasons. But doctors and public health experts warn that such activities are not risk free, as air pol­lution level is the highest during the early hours of the day.

 

False sense of security

Among the worst affected by the valley’s pollution are the traf­fic police. “We were once given a mask costing Rs 3,500, the one with advanced filters. But it only lasted six months and we haven’t been given another one,” says Raja Ram Adhikari, a sub-constable traffic police working in the Lagankhel-Sat­dobato section. “Now I use an easily available cloth mask, which gets spoiled by the day’s end.”

A study published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmen­tal Epidemiology in 2016 suggested that inexpensive cloth masks vary widely in effectiveness and could be giving users a false sense of security, especially in highly polluted areas. The most cost-efficient cloth mask offered between 39 and 65 percent protection against five various sized particles, says the study, while the woven polyester mask was between 78 and 94 percent effective. But as most of these masks are ineffective against particulates smaller than 2.5 microns, the most harmful ones for our health, the 2016 study suggest­ed, they are as good as useless.

The study showed the most inexpensive and most popu­lar masks used in Nepal, China, India and Southeast Asia are also the least effective.

Unable to find a suitable mask to combat dust-induced allergies, Tashi Gyalzen Sherpa decided to make them himself. Since 2014, his company, Metro-Mask, the makers of Nepal’s first high-tech anti-pollution masks, has been pro­ducing four different kinds, namely the Moto mask priced at Rs 3,500 per piece, the City and Urban at Rs 1,500 apiece and the Dispo at Rs 200-300 apiece.

“PM 2.5, the atmospheric solid particles present in the air and espe­cially in the smoke emitted by vehi­cles and brick kilns, is absorbed by the masks’ carbon filter layers, purifying the air you breathe,” he says. “These masks are comfortable, washable and stylish, have replace­able filters and easily last a year.”

Sherpa says his masks are specially designed for places like Kathmandu with high pollution levels. “A yearly investment of Rs 1,500 in the Urban mask is definitely better than having to buy a normal cloth or surgical mask daily,” he adds. “The Urban mask has sold the most in the Nepali market. They are even used by UNESCO and USAID volunteers. And customer reviews have been great.”

Another company whose masks are available in Nepal is Venus Masks, a German brand whose major production takes place in Mumbai. “The Rs 200 Venus mask comes with a triple layer of carbon filter and has been widely accepted in Nepal. It can be used for a month and absorbs up to 96 percent of the PM 2.5 particles,” claims Arjun Hani­ya, the sole importer and distributor of Venus masks in Nepal.

 

Up to individuals

Says Dr Santosh Singh Thapa, a senior physician, “Air pollution pos­es a serious health hazard, with patients visiting hospitals with com­plaints of persistent cough, dust-in­duced allergies, symptoms of asth­ma and chronic cases of bronchitis and obstructive pulmonary diseas­es”. He advises people wear masks with carbon filters that can absorb at least some of the harmful PM 2.5 particles. “Simple cloth masks barely protect you from such micro particles,” he says.

Some masks are expensive, but they may be worth the invest­ment, particularly if you factor in the long-term adverse effects of extreme air pollution on your health. A tip: When you go to buy a mask, make sure to check if it has been certified. For instance, the US offers ‘N95’ and ‘N99’ certificates, Europe gives ‘FFP2’ or ‘FFP3’ cer­tificates while China has its own ‘KN95’ certificate. (Metro-Mask has ‘KN95’ certificate while Venus has ‘N95’ certificate)