Air Pollution Mask – A Comprehensive Study
Air pollution is a growing menace the world over. With air quality soaring above safe levels, people are scrambling to protect themselves in whatever way they can. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 9 out of 10 people in the world breathe contaminated air on a daily basis, and an estimated 7 million people die annually due to air pollution-related health complications.
In 2016 alone, for instance, around 4.2 million people died due to the effects of ambient air pollution while another 3.8 million perished due to indoor air pollution caused by polluting cooking fuels like firewood, kerosene and coal, during the same period. The WHO points out that 90% of the deaths were reported in countries with low or moderate per capita income.
In India, a joint report published by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and The Lancet revealed that approximately 12.4 lakh people died in 2017 due to the ill effects of air pollution. Of this, 6.7 lakh fatalities were on account of ambient particulate matter air pollution while 4.8 lakh fatalities were due to indoor air pollution.
In November 2018, during Diwali, the overall AQI (air quality index) in New Delhi and the NCR jumped to 574, which falls under the ‘severe-plus emergency’ category of the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), an emergency plan put in place to control air pollution in Delhi-NCR. This category is beyond the most critical ‘severe’ level laid down by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
The AQI around Anand Vihar and Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium was far worse, towering at a killer 999. To put this in perspective here’s a chart showing the AQI levels and their associated health impacts as mentioned in the CPCB website.
AQI and It’s Health Impacts
|AQI||Associated Health Impacts|
|Good (0–50)||Minimal Impact|
|Satisfactory (51–100)||May cause minor breathing discomfort to sensitive people.|
|Moderately polluted (101–200)||May cause breathing discomfort to people with lung disease such as asthma, and discomfort to people with heart disease, children and older adults.|
|Poor (201–300)||May cause breathing discomfort to people on prolonged exposure, and discomfort to people with heart disease|
|Very Poor (301–400)||May cause respiratory illness to the people on prolonged exposure. Effect may be more pronounced in people with lung and heart diseases.|
|Severe (401-500)||May cause respiratory impact even on healthy people, and serious health impacts on people with lung/heart disease. The health impacts may be experienced even during light physical activity.|
The pollution in New Delhi during Diwali was worse than the most critical level recognized by the CPCB. It was put under a new category called severe-plus emergency under the GRAP. The GRAP is supervised by the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, a special organization set up by order of the Supreme Court of India with the exclusive objective of fighting air pollution in Delhi-NCR.
According to the guidelines formulated under GRAP, if the atmospheric concentration of PM 2.5 rises to 300µg/m3 and PM 10 to 500 µg/m3, and it stays at these levels for 48 hours straight, the AQI is rated as severe-plus emergency, which immediately triggers a list of regulatory actions such as banning entry of commercial trucks, suspending construction activities, kicking-off odd-even vehicle scheme, and forming a Task Force to oversee the regulatory processes, among others.
New Delhi is not the only city grappling with air pollution. According to a 2016 WHO report, 14 of the 15 most polluted cities in the world, based on PM 2.5 levels, were Indian cities. Kanpur took the ignominious lead in that report, followed by Faridabad, Varanasi, Gaya, Patna and New Delhi.
In this article, we will discuss the various types air pollutants and how they affect our health. We will talk about the different ways in which we can protect ourselves from pollution. Special emphasis will be laid on air pollution masks. We will talk about their types and uses at length. Here’s a quick look at the topics.
- Introduction to air pollution masks
- Types of masks with detailed analysis of each type
- How to get the most out of your air pollution mask
- Possible side-effects of using pollution masks
- What is air pollution?
- Kinds of air pollutants and their health impacts
Let’s get started.
How To Fight Pollution
If you live in a city or near an industrial zone, chances you already are a victim of air pollution. Breathing dirty air on a daily basis can have significant long-term health ramifications. You need to take proactive steps to safeguard yourself and your family from the perilous effects of pollution.
You can get an air purifier for your home. You can use air pollution masks. You can also monitor the AQI of different locations in your city online and plan your outings accordingly. For instance, you can avoid high-pollution areas during peak traffic hours and stay indoors on days when the AQI is particularly poor.
In this article we will talk about air pollution masks. We will discuss everything you need to know about their uses, types, fit and effectiveness. Let’s get started.
Introduction To Air Pollution Masks
An air pollution mask is a respiratory filter worn over the nose and mouth. It traps impurities and prevents them from entering the body. It helps you breathe easy and protects you from respiratory disorders. An air pollution mask is your safety cover in places with high levels of pollution like streets, marketplaces, factories, construction sites and hospitals. It intercepts particulate matter and gaseous fumes before they can enter your nose and mouth, thereby reducing your chances of contracting contagious disease or pollution-induced illnesses.
An air pollution mask can be made of fabric, microfiber or processed paper. It may have a layer of activated carbon to eliminate gaseous contaminants. It may also have stainless steel or plastic girders for shape and strength.
Simple cloth masks offer only marginal protection. They are ineffective against ultra-tiny pollutants like PM 2.5 which includes bacteria, viruses and spores. According to a research carried out at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, cloth air pollution masks can intercept only around 15-57% pollutants present in vehicular exhaust fumes.
Superior respirators like the N95 mask and N100 mask are more effective against PM 2.5. These masks have several layers of filtration that do not allow particulate matter and germs to pass through.
Ratings Of Air Pollution Masks
Air pollution masks have different ratings based on the environment they are designed for and their ability to filter pollutants. When selecting an air pollution mask, it is important that you understand what their ratings mean. Knowing the ratings will help you can get the right mask that best suits your needs.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a US federal agency, is a leading authority on mask safety. It recommends quality standards for air pollution masks and entities around the world follow these standards.
Mask ratings consist of an alphabet followed by a number. The alphabet signifies the mask’s tolerance to oil and the number indicates the percentage of contaminants they can filter and remove. Here are the all the alphabets and numbers used to grade masks.
Respirator Rating Letter Class
N – not resistant to oil
R – resistant to oil
P – oilproof
Respirator Rating Number Class
95 – eliminates 95% of all air pollutants with diameters of 0.3 micron and larger
99 – eliminates 99% of all air pollutants with diameters of 0.3 micron and larger
100 – eliminates 99.97% of all air pollutants with diameters of 0.3 micron and larger. These masks use High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestant (HEPA) technology to intercept PM 2.5 and PM 10. Hence, they are most effective against particulate matter.
Types Of Air Pollution Masks
This is the most widely used air pollution mask. It removes up to 95% non-oily allergens as small as 0.3 micron. It is intolerant to oil and is ineffective in oily environments. N95 respirators are effective against bacteria and fine suspended dust. They have been found to thwart the spread of diseases like swine flu, avian flu, tuberculosis and influenza. They are commonly used in hospitals, labs and morgues.
Road traffic controllers wear N95 masks to shield themselves from vehicular emissions. Children, college students and office-goers also use them on their daily commute to and from school, college and office respectively. 3M and Dettol are some of the leading brands making N95 masks. The masks are available in all sizes.
Design and technology
N95 masks usually have more than one layer of filtration. Some masks have a valve to let out exhaled air. It is needed to prevent moisture from getting trapped inside the mask. Some N95 masks also come with an added layer of activated carbon. 3M N95 masks have advanced electrostatic media for easier respiration.
The electrostatically charged microfibers facilitate free movement of air and keep the mask cool. The masks are lightweight for longer wearing comfort. Some masks have adjustable nose-clips for better fit. Some others have a foam nose pad for cushioning the nose.
N95 masks provide up to 95% protection against non-oil based solid and liquid aerosols for factory workers. They are used in activities that involve grinding, sanding, sawing, sweeping, bagging, wood work, foundry work, construction work and other dusty operations.
The masks are effective against solid particles released while processing wheat, maize, sugarcane, coal, iron ore and other crops and minerals. They can also remove liquid non-oily particles from deodorants, insect repellant sprays and perfumes. N95 masks are most commonly used by bikers, cyclist, and people travelling by car, bus, metro and train.
N95 masks should not be used for oil-based gases and vapors. They are ineffective against paint sprays, lead, cadmium, asbestos and arsenic particles.
N95 masks are washable and reusable. They can be used continuously for 2 to 3 days after which they need to be cleaned. To wash mask, rinse it gently in running water. Do not scrub too vigorously. Dry well before donning it again.
Surgical N95 masks are mostly disposable. The NIOSH recommends discarding N95 masks used in Operating Rooms and while dealing with patients suffering from contagious diseases. For complete information on use and reuse of N95 masks in healthcare facilities, please visit the NIOSH website.
The service life of NIOSH-approved N95 masks depends on 3 important factors:
- hygiene of the mask
- any damage the mask might have suffered
- breathing resistance experienced by the user
We would advise you to evaluate your mask based on these guidelines. If you feel it is damaged, soiled or has become noticeably difficult to breathe through, you should probably get a new mask.
N99 and N100 masks
These masks are more powerful than the N95 mask. The N99 can remove up to 99% particles as small as 0.3 micron. It is not resistant to oil, and hence, is not suitable for oil-filled environments. The N100 mask eliminates up to 99.97% pollutants as small as 0.3 micron. It is a HEPA mask with superior particulate filtration.
Like the N99, it is intolerant to grease and cannot be used in greasy environments. Vogmask, Repeller and Smart Air are some of the leading brands offering N99 masks. N100 masks are a little hard to come by. They are rarely sold commercially and you might have to contact an industrial dealer to buy one.
Design and technology
N99 and N100 masks have multiple stages of filtration. The N99 mask by Repeller, for instance, has a triple filter system. The first layer traps coarse particles like PM 10, hair and sand. The second layer is a custom-made 3-ply micro-particulate filter which removes PM 2.5 down to 0.3 micron. The final innermost layer is made of activated carbon, and combats gaseous impurities like VOCs and foul smells.
The masks are available in all sizes and come with adjustable straps. Some models have exhalation valves for keeping the mask cool and facilitating freer air flow during exhalation. The valve also prevents accumulation of carbon dioxide inside the mask which can be fatal. Some respirators have moldable nose clips, padded adjustable nose guards and removable PM filters. N99 and N100 masks are costlier than N95 varieties.
N99 and N100 masks are routinely used in industrial and healthcare facilities. They offer breathing protection against finer dust and mist found in pharmaceutical plants that warrant FFP3 protection. FFP stands for ‘filtering facepiece’, and FFP3 is a class of respirators that protects against hazardous high-concentration solid and liquid aerosols.
N99 and N100 masks are more effective against disease-causing germs and fine particulate matter as small as 0.3 micron. They are excellent for guarding against pollution on roads, construction sites and quarries. They are also suitable for high-risk groups like children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with respiratory problems.
Both the N99 and the N100 are washable and reusable. They can be used for 3 to 6 months with proper maintenance. Some respirators have a separate PM 2.5 filter inserted into a pocket in the mask. The filters are not washable and need to be replaced once a month if used for 8 hours daily.
The mask can be washed and reused. However, N99 and N100 masks used in hospitals need to be treated differently. Also, brands have different guidelines for their products and we would suggest you read the user manual carefully before using the product.
Same as N95 masks. However, if the respirator is for one-time use only, follow the instructions and do as directed.
P95 masks intercept both oil-based and non-oil based impurities. They are oilproof and excellent for oily environments like gas stations, refineries, pharmaceutical plants, kitchens, and factories processing oil and fried food.
P95 masks remove up to 95% of all air pollutants of size 0.3 micron and larger. They are specialists in trapping suspended oil molecules that are released from petrol, diesel, kerosene, paints and cooking oil. They also capture PM 2.5, PM 10, bacteria, spore, pollen and dust mites.
Design and technology
P95 masks are designed to keep out grease. The multi-stage respirator media removes fumes from paints, solvents and lubricants. Most P95 masks have cooling valves to combat heat and moisture build-up. They also have adjustable nose cushions for reducing pressure on the nose and to ensure a closer fit.
Some masks have an additional activated carbon layer for filtering odors. P95 masks are capable of intercepting dust, fiberglass, paint fumes, smoke, allergens and wood dust.
3M and Grin Health make quality P95 air pollution masks. The P Series mask by Grin Health comes with advanced 5-fold protection with an outer composite pre-filter, an activated carbon layer, a dual-engine filter, a hygroscopic sweat layer and an inner skin-friendly soft fabric. P95 masks are more versatile than N95 masks, and therefore, are more expensive.
P95 respirators are suitable for use in petrochemical, paint, paper, textile, automobile, chemical, pharmaceutical and food manufacturing/processing units. They are used in smelting, foundry operations and glass etching.
Since P95 respirators filter grease, they become grimy very quickly and need to be washed frequently. They can be wiped with a soft wet cloth or washed in water with a mild detergent. The masks require gentle care. Do not scrub them vigorously or put them in the washing machine or dryer. Some P95 masks are disposable.
P95 masks should not be used for than 8 hours at a stretch. We advise you to read the instructions carefully before use.
N95, N99, N100 and P95 are the most commonly used respiratory filters. But, there are a few other types too. Let us take a look at them.
Air purification motion mask
This kind of air pollution mask is ideal for physical exercise. It can be worn on walks, jogs and runs, and while playing outdoor sports like cricket. Prana Air is a well-known motion mask brand. It makes premium motion masks with 6-layer protection against PM 2.5, VOCs and odors.
The respirators root out up to 99.95% allergens of size 0.3 micron and bigger. They feature built-in fans that rotate the air faster, providing up to 2 liters per second. The fans are battery-powered. On a full charge, they can work for 2 to 6 hours non-stop.
The Totobobo mask is a customizable air pollution mask. You can reshape and trim it to fit the contours of your face. It has a patented water mark seal check technology that seals the mask over your facial skin. It prevents outside air from leaking in and disrupting the filtration.
You can resize your Totobobo mask to fit all members of your family from children to adults. It is a moldable mask which can be cut to fit your facial structure perfectly. The mask is reusable and lightweight. It comes with a stretchable strap and an anti-virus additive to prevent germ build-up. It is higher on the cost side given its unique customizable shape.
N95 Aura Particulate Respirator
The 3M N95 particulate respirator is specially designed for people who wear glasses. It has a unique Cool Flow Valve that keeps the mask cool and prevents eyewear fogging. It is suitable for hot and humid weather where the user has to wear the mask for several hours. The N95 particulate respirator is compatible with a variety of spectacles. It removes up to 95% pollutants as small as 0.3 micron and is only meant for non-oily environments.
Respro is a brand of air pollution mask. It makes different masks for use within and outside the city. It has masks for walking, running, cycling, exercising, commuting by metro, commuting by 2-wheeler, indoor sports, outdoor sports and allergy relief. The company website has a Mask Selector that helps to pick the right mask for your needs.
The masks have features like dust and pollen filtration, sub-micron filtration, exhaust fume filtration, exhalation valve and replaceable filter system. The allergy relief respirators are hypo-allergenic. They are made from dermatologically-tested material which is unlikely to trigger allergic reactions.
Surgical masks are mostly used by doctors, nurses and lab technicians. They shield the user against bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. Wearing a surgical mask can protect you from the flu. The thick material of the mask prevents flu germs form reaching your nose and mouth. The masks are disposable and should not be reused.
How To Get The Most Out Of Your Air Pollution Mask
Here are a few things you can do to get the best protection possible.
1. Know your environment
The first thing you need to do is understand your requirement. Find out the nature of the environment you are normally in. Is it an oil-infused or an oil-free environment? Is it hot or cold, dusty or smoky, humid or dry? Will you be using the mask indoors or outdoors, in a hospital or at home? Do you need it for your allergies, or to play sports? Your air pollution mask will be effective only if it is designed for the environment it is used it. Wearing the wrong mask is as good as wearing no mask at all. So make sure you understand your surroundings before you go in for a purchase.
2. Get the right fit
The next thing you need to consider is the fit. Wearing a mask is not enough; you need to make sure you are wearing it right. For that, you need to find a mask that fits you well. It must not be too tight or too loose. It must not droop or wobble. The edge of the respirator must fit intimately over the bridge of your nose, your cheeks, jaws and chin. If it does not, air from outside will get in, rendering the mask ineffective. Here are a few quick tips on how to wear your mask right:
- Stretch the adjustable straps.
- Place the mask over your nose and mouth. Hold it steadily in place.
- Position the nose clip/pad on the bridge of your nose.
- Pull the top strap over your head till it rests on the crown of your head. The strap must be above your ears.
- Now pull the bottom strap over your head till it rests just below the ears.
- Next place both your hands over the nose clip and mold it around your nose to seal it close to your face. Press the circumference of the mask on your face to eliminate all gaps.
- If it is a valved mask, place both hands on the mask and inhale sharply. This should cause the mask to collapse slightly. If you sense any air leaks between the faceseal of the respirator and your face, reposition the nose clip and repeat the process again, aiming for a closer fit.
- If it is a non-valved respirator, place both hands on the mask and exhale sharply. This should cause the mask to distend slightly. If there are any leaks, reposition the nose clip and try again.
3. Utility over looks
When buying an air pollution mask, always choose utility over style. The looks of the mask does not matter. It must be able to protect you from harmful allergens and keep you safe. So even if it is not soft on the eyes, try not to bother. If it is suited to your environment, has a good particulate filtration percentage and fits you well, you should go for it.
4. Go green
Some air pollution masks like surgical masks can only be used once. They must to be disposed and cannot be washed or reused. This generates more waste and contributes to the landfills around the city, further adding to the problem of air pollution. Our suggestion would be to get a mask that is washable and reusable. You will save money and also save the environment.
5. Check for quality certification
You can tell a good mask from a bad by the number of quality standards it conforms to. When selecting an air pollution mask, look for production and safety standards like ISI mark, BIS certification, Personal Protective Equipment by CE and certifications from the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
6. Additional features
In order to ensure longer wearing comfort make sure your mask has a flexible strap. You must be able to adjust the fit to seal off all gaps. If you are buying a mask for physical exercise, ensure it has an exhalation valves and/or a fan to circulate air faster. If you have allergies, you might want to opt for a hypo-allergenic mask with a skin-friendly material. Above all, make sure your mask at least has an N95 rating. It is the most basic kind of dust mask and your mask must at least adhere to its standards.
Possible Side-Effects Of Using Pollution Masks
While air pollution masks have their benefits, they also have their share of disadvantages. Firstly, they are not very comfortable. They can be quite restricting and suffocating. Second, air pollution masks become wet with use due to moisture from the mouth during exhalation. This can cause bacteria and viruses to breed in the damp mask surface and lead to health problems. So, keep checking your respirator and replace it if before it becomes too soggy.
Third, if your mask is too tight, too dense or too heavy, your lungs might feel the pressure. You might inadvertently end up stressing out your lungs trying to breathe normally through the thick material. Fourth, if your mask lacks a proper outlet for the exhaled air, carbon dioxide might remain trapped inside the mask causing you to inhale the same air you just exhaled.
As a result, your oxygen intake will be less and you will start tiring out. Lastly, your dust mask will work well only if it is maintained well. If you do not wash/wipe it regularly, and dry it properly, it will attract germs and cause more health issues than it was supposed to prevent.
Now let us get some final brief on air pollution.
What Is Air Pollution?
Air pollution refers to the presence of certain substances in the air which makes the air unfit for respiration. These substances may be organic or inorganic in nature. They may occur in their solid, liquid or gaseous states. They may also be anthropogenic, meaning originating in human activity, or naturogenic, meaning originating in natural events.
Air pollution alters the natural composition of the air we breathe. It loses its life-supporting quality and starts interfering with the health of plants, animals and human beings. Air pollution can be classified into two kinds: outdoor and indoor.
Outdoor air pollution
Outdoor air pollution is caused by smoke from vehicles, mines, industries and construction activities. This smoke is rich in dangerous contaminants like sulphur dioxide(SO2), oxides of nitrogen(NO, NO2), particulate matter, ozone (O3), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and lead (Pb). Outdoor pollution is also caused by agriculture, dairy farming, and natural events like volcanic eruptions and bush fires.
Indoor air pollution
Indoor air pollution is caused by the use of unsafe cooking fuels like firewood, coal, kerosene, dung cakes and biomass. It is also caused by a group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are released from household products like cleaning supplies, glues, paints, varnishes, plastic bags, room fresheners, deodorants, insect repellants and plywood furniture.
Kinds of air pollutants and their health impacts
The air we breathe is full of pollutants like sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, ozone, lead, VOCs and particulate matter.
Sulphur dioxide is released when substances rich in sulphur like coal, crude oil and natural gas are burnt. The substance causes irritation of the nose and throat, and aggravates conditions like asthma and bronchitis. Sulphur dioxide reacts with oxides of nitrogen, water vapour, oxygen and oxidants to form sulphuric acid and nitric acid, which are the two principal components of acid rain.
Oxides of nitrogen are a result of automobile and industrial emissions, and fossil fuel-based household cooking. Nitrogen oxides react with moisture and VOCs in the presence of sunlight to form ground-level ozone and photochemical smog. Smog causes respiratory and cardiovascular disorders, fetal anomalies and premature death.
Carbon monoxide is produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. It is extremely poisonous and causes fatigue, chest pain, giddiness, headache, vomiting and lack of concentration.
Ground-level ozone is a secondary pollutant. It is not directly emitted into the air but is formed as a result of complex chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen and VOCs in the presence of sunlight. It causes coughing, sneezing, inflammation of the lining of the lungs, lung scars, and exacerbates asthma and emphysema.
Lead is produced when leaded gasoline combusts. It is found near lead smelters, metallurgical plants processing ores and minerals, factories making lead-acid batteries, and waste incinerators. Lead affects the body’s nervous system, and induces hallucinations. It has also been linked to low IQ in children, developmental defects in fetuses and neurological disorders.
VOCs are a major contributor to indoor air pollution. Short-term exposure to VOCs cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Prolonged exposure can damage the kidneys and the liver.
Now let us discuss the most critical air pollutant – particulate matter. This pollutant deserves special attention due to the nature of its composition and the extent of harm it can do to the human body.
Particulate matter is a group of microscopic solid and liquid substances. They can be living or non-living, organic or inorganic. They are released during the combustion of fossil fuels, volcanic eruptions, wild fires, dust storms and sea sprays. Common examples of particulate matter are vehicular smoke, cigarette smoke, smog, cooking smoke, soot, fungal spores, dust mites, bacteria, virus, pet allergens, dust, cement dust, suspended atmospheric dust and fly ash.
Size of particulate matter
Particulate matter is denoted by the short form ‘PM’, followed by a number which indicates the size of the particle. Particulates with diameters of 10-2.5 micron (micrometer) are grouped under PM 10 and are known as coarse particulate matter.
Particulates measuring 2.5 micron and less are classified as PM 2.5 and are known as fine particulate matter. If you are trying to figure out how small these contaminants are, let us tell you that a human hair has a diameter of 50-150 micron and a grain of salt 80-100 micron. In other words, particulates are much smaller than a human hair and a grain of salt, and can barely be seen with the naked eye.
Health impact of particulate matter
PM 2.5 and PM 10 are hands down two of the deadliest air pollutants known to man. They have been declared as Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (ICAR) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Particulates invade our lungs and permeate the terminal membrane in our alveoli to enter our bloodstream. They obstruct breathing, and cause great damage to the heart and lungs.
Exposure to particulate matter can cause shortness of breath, coughing, sneezing, wheezing, dizziness, nausea, runny nose and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Sustained exposure can lead to asthma, bronchitis, cancer, birth anomalies, premature death, and a host of respiratory and cardiovascular disorders.
Air pollution is a growing hazard. But there are things we can do to minimize its effects. Paramount among them is wearing an air pollution mask. A mask can shield us from harmful allergens wherever we are. It is lightweight, portable and effective. It offers an effective solution to the problem of ambient air pollution in cities and towns.
Dust masks come in various makes and sizes. The more sophisticated ones can remove particulate matter as small as 0.3 micron with a success rate of up to 99.97%. This is an astounding feat for pollution masks and puts them in the same class as HEPA air purifiers, so to speak. We highly recommend air pollution masks for countering the effects of air pollution.