There’s no escaping the fact that the pollution index in Shanghai over the past few days has been out of control. For those of you well versed in the numbers, Friday saw a high of nearly 550 and was over 500 for most of the day. The weekend, especially today, has been much more bearable.
Why harp on an already exhausted subject, particularly one that gives negative versus positive impressions? The notion came to me this morning at the gym. I was overhearing people talking about which facemask they should be using. What I gathered was that they had a very misguided idea of how to protect themselves. I’m sure that this is more common than not.
Coincidentally, I have been researching the issue of China’s air pollution and various protective measures including masks over the past year. What I want to do here is spell out some of the most important aspects of keeping you and your loved ones safe when the pollution index starts to climb.
· Get informed. Firstly, download the U.S. Consulate’s air-quality index (AQI) app. It’s free and gives hour-by-hour updates on pollution levels. It also tells you whether or not to don a mask or open the windows.
· Understand. Pollution is caused by various factors. In the winter, air pressure tends to create large pockets of windless areas. This results in what we saw this past weekend. For places that sit in a valley, like Beijing, the issue is even greater.
· Know your PMs. PM stands for particulate matter. There are two main types: PM10 and PM2.5. PM10 are larger particulates that the body naturally expels. The ones to worry about are the PM2.5 particles. These are super small and are difficult for the body to get rid of. Scientists have found links between the later type and various kinds of cancer.
· What you see isn’t what you get. Just because it’s hazy outside does not mean that the pollution levels are high. Conversely, a clear day isn’t necessarily a get-out-of-jail free card. The confusion is really pronounced during cold weather, as clouds can lead to this misinterpretation of pollution levels.
· Invest in a high-quality air purifier. They are available at many department stores or on Taobao. While pricey, the benefit to your health can’t be overstated.
· Go green. Buy air-cleansing plants like Mother-in-Law’s Tongue and Aloe Vera. Put them near your bedside for a more relaxing, healthy sleep.
· Get a mask. Yes, yes it looks silly. But it’s going to look sillier with a tube sticking out of your throat later in life. Get over yourself and buy a proper mask. The ones to look for are made mostly by 3M. There are different types, including those with air vents. The bells-and-whistles are not as important as the filter level. Get an N95, N99 or N100 level. These are the only types that actually filter out the harmful PM2.5s.
· Yes, size matters. How your mask sits on your face is critical. I’ve seen people wearing masks with their nostrils exposed. This, obviously, is wrong. The mask should be tight around the nose and sit under the chin. The two straps need to go at the base of the neck and crown of the head (this sounds menial, but it is important). For those with glasses, sit your frames over the mask to avoid fogging up. For children, there are specially sized masks available.
· Out with the old. Masks aren’t meant to last forever. Air and moisture get trapped inside the mask, breaking down the filter. A good rule of thumb is to use a new mask every couple of days in lightly polluted conditions. For heavy days, like last Friday, you should use a new mask everyday.
· It goes without saying. All exercise and outdoor activities should be brought to a minimum when the air is bad. Although you might see people outside playing basketball, err on the side of caution. Besides, who couldn’t use a day off from the gym?
Let’s face it. As a developing economy, China is going to experience its days of pollution. Major cities in America were no different up until only a decade ago. Growing up in Los Angeles, I remember the constant “brown outs” as a kid, where the smog was so heavy we couldn’t go outside. The causes of air pollution – be they weather patterns, changes in seasons, coal burning or industry – are varied. Chinese leadership understands that this is an issue and is taking measures to combat it. Although the outrage might grow exponentially on “hazy” days, patience and proper protection are much more important.