India Choking: Masks and air purifiers are short-term measures, attitudes towards pollution need to change

This is the concluding part of a three-part series on the rise of Air Pollution in India. The series hopes to address the severity of the air pollution problem and what are the measures that can be used to mitigate the same. You can read the first part and the second part of the story.

By Pallavi Aiyar

Travelling across China can be disquieting. Cities resemble surrealist landscapes with manic surgeons on the loose, given the numbers of people in facemasks. Local magazines that used to write articles about the 'Top 5 Restaurants' or 'Top 5 Spas' to visit in Beijing, now feature articles on the 'Top 5 Air Purifiers to buy'.

But in India, despite pollution levels that are equally, if not more alarming, there tends to be a more sanguine attitude. I’m familiar with the shrug of the shoulder and mental “what to do, we are like this only” fatalism that is the common response of us Indians to everything from poverty to patriarchy. But in fact, there are some short-term, emergency “fixes” to help deal with living in some of the world’s most polluted cities.

Protective facemasks: How effective are they?

High-quality masks can filter out the majority of particulate matter. The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health offers mask certification based on the amount of particulate matter filtered out. An N95 rating, for example, means a mask filters out 95 percent of airborne particulates. But even cheap and simple surgical masks can help to some degree. The most important element is how a mask fits against the face. Air gaps that allow in particulate matter render the mask ineffective.

Image: Reuters

Image: Reuters

So, is wearing these masks actually beneficial for health? We do know for a fact that good-quality masks filter out a majority of PM 2.5. We also know that PM 2.5 is linked to a number of adverse health outcomes. It is therefore logical to assume that donning a mask in a polluted area will help to improve health outcomes. However, there are not many studies that have followed mask-wearers over months and years, testing their health and looking for improvements. Conclusive data is therefore simply not available.

There was however, one study conducted in Beijing in 2012 by researchers from the UK and China that tested 98 patients with coronary heart disease walking on a predefined route in central Beijing, once while using a highly efficient facemask, and once without the mask. With the mask on, they showed improvements in blood pressure, heart rates and blood supply to the heart. All of these indications are linked to heart attacks and strokes, so any improvement in this data could have a strong positive impact on cardio-vascular health.

Laser Egg

Apart from masks, hand held devices called laser eggs that monitor PM 2.5 levels are also available . These can be programmed to send out alerts when the air quality exceeds selected thresholds. The data generated can then be used to make decisions like whether to exercise outdoors or to send children outside to play.

Jury still out on air purifiers and their health benefits

Finally, air purifiers can clean air inside homes, cars and other indoor spaces. However, the data on the health benefits of air purifiers is somewhat muddy. There are two types of air-cleaning devices that remove particles from the air - mechanical air filters and electronic air cleaners.

Mechanical air filters are the more common option and remove particles by trapping them on filter materials. The most efficient of these filters are called HEPA (or high efficiency particulate air filters). To qualify as HEPA, a filter must be able to remove 99.97 percent of particles that have a size of 0.3 micrometers or more from the air that passes through it. It’s important to make sure that any purifier bought specifies the use of a HEPA filter.


Electronic air cleaners, which are the other option, work by ionising (or electrically charging) particulate matter and then trapping these on a series of oppositely charged collector plates. The problem is that some of these cleaners actually produce ozone in the process, which can harm the lungs. Moreover, neither mechanical nor electronic purifiers remove toxic gases from the air, only particulates.

In short, the jury is still out on the efficacy of home air purifiers in bettering the health. They are also expensive, ranging in price from Rs 1.5 lakhs for high quality ones to about Rs 10,000 for cheaper brands. (It is however, possible to simply make your own air purifier with a HEPA filter, fan, and Velcro belt, all bought off the Internet for about Rs 1,500.)

Indian organisations and schools nowhere near employing air pollution mitigation measures

Mitigation equipment is not always cheap, but as a short-term measure in what are pretty desperate conditions, it should not be dismissed. As awareness of air pollution in Delhi and across India is rising, it is mainly foreign companies, embassies and schools that have embraced mitigation measures.

The Red Cross office in New Delhi, for example, bought masks for all of its employees during the winter of 2015-16. The American Embassy School in Delhi has a policy against students doing aerobic activity without wearing protective masks when PM levels reach the hazardous range. Yet, most Indian offices, Indian schools and Indian public institutions don’t appear to be motivated to take similar action to protect Indian lungs. And a stigma attached to wearing masks persists. It’s common to think someone is sick or hiding something if they wear a mask.

Change in attitude is a prime requirement

Masks and purifiers only manage symptoms. They do not get to the cause of the problem of air pollution. To reverse, rather than just deal with, pollution, social and individual behavioral change is necessary. Those who obsess about gadgets like purifiers are often amongst the worst offenders when it comes to car or diesel generator use. In India where the elite has long been used to procuring “public goods” like electricity, water and even security by private means, the general mentality is oriented towards securing private comfort and safety, rather than collective action and change.

Representative image

Representative image

But, long-term and sustainable solutions require fundamental changes in the ways in which people consume and commute. Residents can wear masks till they forget what their actual faces look like, however, until they begin to reduce private car use by either car-pooling or taking public transport, making sure that their garbage is disposed off properly rather than just burnt, paying attention to how their construction waste might be recycled rather than randomly dumped and left to generate road dust, and in general begin to make decisions about lifestyle that factor in environmental consequences, our cities will continue to choke.

Dirty air is democratic in that everyone breathes it and therefore everyone should have a strong interest in cleaning it up. In India, we have seen a surge of middle-class activism in recent years against corruption and violence against women.

We now need an Anna Hazare of ambient air pollution emerging, around whom a genuine civil society movement can emerge.

The authour recently wrote the book ‘Choked: Everything You Were Afraid to Know About Pollution’

This is the third part of a three-part series on the rise of Air Pollution in India. The series hopes to address the severity of the air pollution problem and what are the measures that can be used to mitigate the same. You can read the first part and the second part of the story.

Published Date: Mar 03, 2017 11:47 am | Updated Date: Mar 03, 2017 11:47 am