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Air pollution: towards facemasks becoming the norm?

Over the past year, remembering to bring a mask has become the equivalent of remembering your keys. Although it has not always been the most comfortable, especially throughout summer, reducing the risk of transmission of Covid-19 has made it all worthwhile. However, did you stop to wonder whether there were additional health benefits to wearing a face covering? With rising levels of air pollution worldwide, wearing a mask may help reduce your exposure to the toxic particles floating around in the air. 

When thinking about air pollution, many people would immediately imagine countries such as China where mask wearing has been somewhat of a social norm even before the pandemic. In fact in some Asian countries, some people choose to wear masks for a range of reasons, such as added warmth in the winter. However, air pollution is a worldwide problem, and the UK is no exception. The levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air are illegally high in around 75% of urban areas in the country. Scientists believe that air pollution is likely to be damaging to every organ in the human body and it leads to approximately 40,000 early deaths every year. This highlights just how severe the situation is. If this isn’t worrying enough, recent studies suggest that air pollution may even be affecting our behaviour. It has been shown that air pollution can be linked to impaired judgement, mental health problems, and even higher levels of crime.

A study has shown that for particles of 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter, mask efficiency ranged from 14-96%

Various measures and practices have been put in place to try and combat excessive levels of air pollution. This includes congestion charges in certain areas, as well as legislation to prevent the sale of the most polluting fuels. However, one measure that the UK is yet to implement is mask wearing. While this does not help to prevent air pollution, it can help with preventing health conditions arising due to exposure to unclean air. 

The effectiveness of face masks in reducing exposure to air pollution can vary massively. This largely depends on the type of mask as well as the source of pollution. A study has shown that for particles of 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter (the typical particle size for human induced air pollution such as from traffic), mask efficiency ranged from 14-96%. This shows how the type of mask worn can have a huge impact. 

Contrastingly, it has been suggested that mask wearing may actually increase exposure to air pollution in some instances. This is because some people who wear a mask have a false sense of security, and as a result may stay out much longer than they typically would. Another point to bear in mind is that even if masks are proved to be highly effective, the effectiveness can be drastically reduced if people do not take care of their masks (wash regularly if reusable, use appropriate filters, etc) or if they do not wear them properly. 

Governments need to acknowledge just how serious this crisis is and to actually implement measures to tackle it

While it is important to look at measures which may help to reduce exposure to air pollution, it is equally, if not more, important to try and tackle the root of the issue – reduce the levels of pollution. There have been several initiatives aimed at encouraging more people to take greener transport options, such as walking or cycling. However, some people are reluctant to follow these recommendations as it means they will need to breathe in the polluted air arising from traffic. Furthermore while such individual actions are important, legal constraints on industries are truly lacking, especially when one considers that the meat industry is responsible for between 14 and 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, eating one pound of beef has more of a negative impact than burning a gallon of gasoline. This shows that further action is desperately needed.

It is still uncertain whether mask wearing in the UK will remain a norm post-Covid, especially considering the public backlash it would cause. What we do know however is that if we don’t take drastic measures to reduce air pollution, we will see a further increase in related health conditions. Governments need to acknowledge just how serious this crisis is and to actually implement measures to tackle it. 

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