Does wearing a mask help during poor air quality?

The below article talks about poor air quality, masks, and their benefits, types of masks, along with some frequently asked questions about wearing a mask in areas with poor air quality. 

Does wearing a mask protect you from the effects of poor air quality? 

Yes, wearing masks is immensely beneficial to protect yourself from the adverse impacts of poor air quality on your health. Different kinds of masks provide different levels of protection, depending on the type of filtration it is capable of. With the COVID-19 Pandemic, wearing a mask has been made compulsory worldwide, and has proven to be effective in keeping away various contaminants. This practice will need to be continued to protect global citizens from the devastating impacts of bad air quality on respiratory systems. 

Air pollution and air quality

Poor air quality due to increasing pollution is an extensively studied field. The effects of exposure to bad air quality are inevitable and researchers have taken up various measures to identify the different impacts air-borne pollutants could have. Air pollution has been found to impact human health severely and if exposed to it on a long-term basis, it could cause irreversible damage including respiratory conditions and neuro system damages amongst other illnesses. 

Research into air pollution in the top 30 cities in the world shows that Indian cities hold the first 21 positions and that in 2019, approximately 1.67 million deaths were attributed to long-term exposure to poor air quality. The long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution caused heart attacks, chronic lung diseases, strokes, along with neonatal diseases which were accelerated due to the poor air quality (Hadley S., 2020). 

Various countries have taken measures to ensure clean air. For example, cities like Birmingham and Madrid aim to create “clean air zones” by enforcing strict regulations within the inner-city borders, China has acknowledged the need to speed up the construction and usage of electric vehicles to ensure that decent levels of air quality can be maintained in the country, Bangladesh high court has put together several directives aimed at ministries across the country to take actions to counter the effects of air pollution on its citizens (Hadley S., 2020).

Sources of exposure to poor air quality

Air pollution and its effects can be seen globally across rural and urban areas. Exposure to poor air quality can occur indoors or outdoors and some of the sources are the following:

  • Smoke and fumes from vehicles, factories, fires, power plants, burning waste, heating systems, firecrackers, etc. 
  • Smog from indoor or outdoor fire sources
  • Tobacco smoke from primary usage or second-hand exposure
  • Burning fuel sources at close quarters like coal, oil, and wood
  • Occupational exposure such as paint fumes, varnish, automobile fumes, etc. 
  • Chemicals from cleaning agents, pesticides, paints, etc. 
  • Exposure from long-term pollutant sources like asbestos or lead paint
  • Allergens, mold spores, dander, pollen, etc. 

Prolonged exposure to poor air quality could translate to the following physical symptoms – coughing, wheezing, irritation and inflammation of eyes/ throat/skin, respiratory difficulties, chronic fatigue, breathlessness, diminished lung capacity, etc. If any of these symptoms are observed in pregnant individuals, it is best to consult a medical professional for help and counsel. 

Protecting yourself from poor air quality 

Outdoor air quality is an important factor that plays into the well-being of one’s physical health. While there is no way to completely protect yourself from poor air quality, here are some preventative measures you can take to avoid or reduce the impacts it could have on your physical health:

  • Periodically check air quality forecasts to ensure that you stay indoors during peak hours of poor air quality. 
  • Limit your exposure to poor air quality especially during traveling or being in traffic.
  • Wear masks to reduce the intake of airborne pollutants into your bloodstream through the respiratory system
  • Wear protective glasses or sunglasses to protect your eyes from long-term exposure to air pollution as pollutants can enter your body through your eyes as well
  • Using alternatively fueled items such as hand-powered or electrically powered devices. 
  • If you have been diagnosed with asthma, make sure to carry your inhaler at all times and make a note to stay away from heavily polluted areas
  • Stay away from tobacco smoke and ban indoor smoking.
  • Ensure proper indoor air quality through proper ventilation and exhaust fans, or by installing an air purifier. 
  • Get rid of unwanted chemicals such as strong cleaning agents, paints, air fresheners, hairsprays, varnishes, etc. 
  • Use natural products wherever and whenever possible, especially for cleaning and maintenance purposes
  • Ensure that all ventilation systems are periodically monitored and cleaned, this also includes changing or cleaning the filters in your air purifier
  • Have periodical assessments of indoor air quality with help from consulting professionals from an environmental monitoring company 
  • Get air purifying plants as they are a natural and eco-friendly solution to cleaning the air and producing fresh oxygen
  • Invest in air quality monitors, sensors, or alarms that can measure indoor air quality at all times and alert you when the air quality is poor or when a certain pollutant’s concentration has increased. 

Masks 

Even before the COVID-19 Pandemic, citizens globally used masks to protect themselves from the harmful effects of air pollution. However, the COVID-19 Pandemic has increased the awareness of wearing masks to protect yourself and your family from disease-causing viruses, bacteria, toxic contaminants, or pollutants. Different kinds of masks can provide varying degrees of filtration and protection from airborne contaminants. 

While there are different types of masks available globally today, it is important to know which one best suits your needs and use them in accordance with the instructions set out by global health agencies like the WHO or national health agencies. 

Key features in a good mask

  • Efficient Pollutant Filtration with proper ratings of N90, N95, or N99. These are the most common and yet the most important rating for a mask, as it determines the kind of efficacy the mask will provide with respect to filtering particles of size up to 0.3 microns. 

An N90 mask will block out 90% of toxic airborne particles, and similarly so for an N95 mask with 95% filtration, and an N99 mask with 99% filtration. Other common standards include KN95 and FFP2 both of which address specific contaminant filtering. 

However, the N95 mask is used as the standard globally for airborne particles of sizes up to 0.3 microns and is recognized globally to be effective against protection from major pollutants and disease-causing viruses or bacteria. Whereas, if your focus is on infectious and toxic particle pollution, you might want to focus on a KN95 or an FFP2 mask. 

  • Efficient Mask Seal is about ensuring that a mask can be suctioned well into the skin during respiratory actions. Mask seals used differ depending on whether you use disposable and single-use masks or re-usable masks. It is an important factor to ensure that airborne pollutants do not pass above, below, or through the mask during inhalation. 
  • Effective Ventilation is an important factor to consider when you purchase masks, as these need to be designed and constructed in a manner that provides adequate space from the face to breathe well and reduces difficulties in wearing one. This could be by providing quality filters, using proper fabric or material for the mask, etc. 

It must be observed that masks must be used depending on your needs. For example, a mask that may be used while exercising outdoors may not have the necessary filtration protection as an N95 mask, as in such situations we need to prefer breathability over filtration efficiency. The same applies to different circumstances where the kind of mask used will change depending on the immediate needs. 

What are masks tested against?

Masks need to pass various rigorous testing and quality assurance trials to ensure that the rating provided is accurate. Therefore, masks are always generally tested for at least 95% efficiency in blocking the below airborne pollutants:

  • Particulate Matter: PM2.5 and PM10
  • Disease-causing bacteria and viruses
  • Common allergens such as pollen, pet dander, dust mites, household dust, etc. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Does wearing a mask protect me from poor air quality?

Does wearing a scarf or a damp cloth over my nose and mouth provide the same protection as a mask?

No, there is a wide variety of scarves, fabrics, etc. that claim to protect the user from toxic airborne pollutants. However, these are only mostly effective with respect to avoiding larger droplets or disease-causing particles like droplets from a sneeze or cough. They are not capable of providing the level of filtration and protection as a mask, as these materials will allow through tiny infected aerosol particles and fine/ coarse air pollutants into your respiratory system. 

What is the difference between a surgical mask and an N95 mask?

N95 and other Particulate MasksSurgical Masks
Closer fitting with fewer pleats aimed to stay snug on the wearer’s face to provide effective protection.Has a filtered exhalation valveCapable of filtering at least 90% of airborne particulates Can be more difficult to breathe through in comparison to other types of masksUses denser filtering materials to protect exposure to particulate matter like vehicular emissions, wild smoke fire, industrial emissions, etc. Tend to face more inhalation resistance in comparison to other types of masks. Better for protection against short-term exposure and keeping others safe from your disease or illness. Better suited for medical professionals and those in constant exposure to finer pollutants. Ideal for environments with larger-sized airborne pollutants or pathogens.Is not usually as snug as the particulate masks Prevent entry of bacteria, viruses, or pollutants from transmission through bodily fluidsDoes not provide adequate protection from smaller pollutants and contaminants. Gaps in between the skin and the mask reduce the efficiency of the mask filtration and protection. Does provide enough protection from air quality and COVID-19 virus

How do I properly use and dispose of a mask?

Using and disposing of masks must always be done efficiently to ensure that the individual wearing them, as well as those around them, are always protected. 

  • If you wear cotton or cloth masks, be sure to wash them daily after use. This will help stop the transmission of germs and if they are not disinfected well enough, the mask could be a breeding ground for the bacteria or virus, as well as act as a carrier of these germs. 
  • Ensure that washed masks are completely dry before they are stored.
  • Have several types of face masks available at hand, to ensure that you’re able to rotate and use them depending on your needs for the day. 
  • Ensure that you always have extra masks at any time, and wash your hands before and after handling a mask for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. 
  • If you use disposable masks, ensure that you throw them after usage into a closed bin. 

Other FAQs about Air Quality that you may be interested in.

Can poor air quality affect your eyesight?

Can poor air quality cause nosebleeds?

Can poor air quality cause Hives?

References

Hadley S. (2020, December 21). Air pollution is causing permanent damage to eye health. Earth.org. Viewed on 11- 27- 2021. https://earth.org/air-pollution-causing-damage-to-eye-health/ 

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