Today marks day four of emergency public health conditions in Beijing, with hazardous air pollution readings above 300 AQI at the US Embassy’s monitor — and I continue to be astonished at the almost total absence of anyone wearing any type of protective mask outside. Every morning I bike past a large group of expat parents getting their kids off to school on the buses — and no one is wearing any mask, not even their children. What’s going on here? What is this collective disconnect, this massive delusion pretending we’re actually not in an emergency situation? Are we really so blase about air pollution that we risk the lives and lungs of our children? Or is it a more likely answer that we simply cannot find these masks in Beijing, especially ones that fit children?
So I’d like to refresh the facts for everyone:
You need to protect yourself and your children when the AQI is over 300. We’re not messing around here; these numbers are truly dangerous for everyone and are at the highest ranking in the EPA system. It’s especially risky for anyone with a bad heart or lung disease, as heart attack rates skyrocket during air pollution spikes. As for children, these air pollution spikes definitely can damage their still-developing lungs. Most international schools in Beijing would keep their students inside with AQI over 200 or 250, and certainly the current 300’s. In the USA, many air pollution alerts kick in after an AQI over 150. In the US, the EPA officially says “people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid all physical activity outdoors” — and that’s for AQI >200! As of now, we are at 338 AQI…
Air pollution masks definitely work, especially the ones rated N95. Here’s again the graph that shows how well they work:
Don’t forget that the key is to find a mask that is certified N95; this is an official rating that the mask filters out 95% of particulate matter in the air. The best company, in my opinion, is 3M, which makes multiple versions of N95 masks mostly for professional use in hazardous jobs. They are the most effective, but unfortunately they’re not exactly consumer-friendly or pretty on the eyes. I’m sure there are many companies in China making N95 masks, but I just couldn’t vouch for them, so if you can get 3M, stick with that. They usually are a thick white rounded mask with yellow ties, such as this one:
Where to buy:
International clinics. Here at BJU, we sell the 3M N95 masks at the gift shop in our new hospital wing (lobby level, left side, behind the plants). Each mask is 16 RMB. I’m pretty sure that the pharmacies at SOS and the other clinics sell them as well.
Expat markets April Gourmet and Jenny Lou’s. I’ve seen most of these expat markets carry a pile of N95 masks, usually behind the cash registers. If you don’t see it, ask them! The Chinese words for mask is 口罩。So you could ask them for their “wu1 ran2 kou3zhao4” 污染口罩 and hopefully they will understand. If they do not sell them, please ask them to buy them and keep them in stock!
Online Websites. This may be your best bet; you can order from a trusted website such as amazon.cn and buy a big box of masks, pay easily with credit card and get delivered, often for free. My favorite website is amazon.cn, and you simply search for “3M N95 口罩” and get yourself a box: this link (hopefully) takes you directly to their page of 3M N95 masks, including model 8210; a box of 20 is only 160 RMB.
I’m very wary of taobao and other sites, as I’ve heard that the counterfeit rates are extraordinarily high on many items there. Perhaps 3M also has a direct supply via their own websites?
Torana Air: Torana Clean Air Center is a store with two outlets in Beijing (here’s their website) and they sell my favorite air pollution mask, the Totobobo mask. As I mentioned in my article last year, Totobobo masks are the most consumer-friendly masks, can be cut down for kid faces, and their filters can be switched very quickly and extremely cheaply. They sell two versions for 150RMB each. They even come with a handy bag; I always carry one in my bag just in case I need it (which happens way too often…)
Local pharmacies and supermarkets. This is much more hit-and-miss, but especially local pharmacies may carry N95 masks since the H1N1 flu scare a few years ago. They should definitely carry regular surgical masks.
Watsons and 7/11. These stores don’t carry the hardcore N95 masks but they usually do have clean surgical masks, often from Japan or Korea, which are much better than nothing. If you look at the graph above, a properly fitted surgical mask (best with the metal nose-bridge to pinch tighter) can ideally filter 80% of particulates.
My Bottom Line.
OK, now you don’t have to feel helpless anymore since you now know where to get these masks. That means you now you have no excuse next time the AQI is over 200-250 (like, um, most days here…) And especially regarding the Totobobo masks, now parents have a viable option for their kids if they absolutely must be outside on the bad days.