Here’s why anti-pollution masks and air purifiers aren’t the saviours we think they are

To call the toxic air quality in North India anything short of hazardous would be an understatement. So, if you've been hiding behind N95 masks, here’s a read you shouldn’t ignore.
Don't take your lungs lightly. Image courtesy: Shutterstock.
Sonakshi Kohli Updated: 27 Oct 2021, 19:19 pm IST
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Air pollution in Delhi is hands down the single-most talked-about thing–even more than Taimur Ali Khan. What came as a result of years of ill-treatment of the environment, farmers burning crop stubbles, bursting crackers on Diwali, and emission from the countless vehicles in the city—has certainly made its way into our conversations and well—our bodies too.

Surely the air quality of our capital city is more toxic than a manipulative boyfriend and is set to destroy the health of the entire population.

“We are inundated with patients coming in with breathing problems, cold, and cough on a regular basis. Pre-existing problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) are also getting aggravated,” points out Dr Shweta Bansal, consultant, Critical Care & Pulmonology, Vimhans Nayati super specialty Hospital, New Delhi.

Now, this supposedly-alarming news may not sound odd any more, considering how air toxicity has become a yearly ritual in Delhi. As a result, we the people are equipping ourselves with masks, purifiers, and every possible thing that the internet suggests can save us from the pollution. 

But do these things even work? Can these masks and purifiers shield us the villainous particulate matter? Let’s find out: 

Anti-pollution masks aren’t the saviours they’re made out to be 

“Polluted air comprises of particulate matter and toxic gases. N95 masks can protect against 95% of the dust and particulate matter of the size of 2.5 micron and smaller—but not the toxic gases,” warns Dr Vivek Nangia, director, Pulmonology, Fortis Hospital Vasant Kunj.

Dr Bansal is quick to add: “These masks are a short-term solution and are effective only if they fit well on the face without any leakages from the sides.”

Air purifiers are all talk and limited action 

Several business and technical surveys report a drastic increase in the sale of air purifiers and predict a rise in their number in the future. However, this antidote to the toxic air comes at a rather steep price. So you’ve got to know just effective they are before spending tens of thousands on it. 

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Much like the masks, the functionality of air purifiers is also limited to removing only the particulate matter effectively and not the toxic gases as per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In fact, Dr Nangia adds:

Air purifiers are not effective when the doors and windows are kept open. However, if one remains shut in a room all day with an air purifier, there will be no ventilation. Rather, there will be high levels of carbon dioxide in the room. This is not recommended and therefore, periodic ventilation is a must.

Does this mean we should face the toxic without any protection?

“There are no studies which have shown that masks and air purifiers are effective but when the air quality is so poor, we presume that air purifiers and masks will work to some extent as they do remove/absorb particulate matter,” Dr Nangia explains.

Let us explain it this way: masks and air purifiers are like sleeveless, bulletproof jackets. When you step out in the battlefield wearing one, you won’t be completely bulletproof. But a little protection is better than no protection, right?

In fact, you’ve got to up your protection game

If you think you can count solely on these two devices for protection against all the damage that air pollution can cause, then you’re highly mistaken.

Additionally, if you think, keeping your outdoor activities minimal is going to help your case, you’re wrong again. Because depending on the strength of your immunity, even a slight exposure, of say, a few minutes, to the toxic air can stir up a breathing problem or irritation in the eyes, and grow into a bigger health problem according to Dr Nangia.

effects of pollution
Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Now, since there’s nothing called “too much exposure” in the scientific and the practical world, all you can do is be more cautious.  

Needless to say, you can enlist air purifiers and face masks for limited service. However, Dr Lalit Mohan Parashar, director, ENT Department, Apollo Spectra, Kailash Colony, New Delhi suggests other practical solutions. He recommends:  avoiding heavy-traffic areas, keeping your stress levels in check, staying hydrated throughout the day, and applying any edible oil on your nose thrice a day.

Additionally, Dr Bansal recommends planting trees outside your home, as well as keeping plants indoors. She also warns against keeping things like rugs and carpets that collect dust inside the house and substituting broom-cleaning with vacuum-cleaning.

Getting vaccinated against the flu, eating immunity-boosting foods such as fruits, vegetables, tulsi and so on will only add to your protection according to Dr Nangia.

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