Benefits of pollution masks are mostly murky

Monday , December 18, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

Most of the pollution masks Utahns have started sporting as inversion smog builds probably aren’t doing much.

The problem is twofold. First, to really protect a person’s respiratory system the masks need to have a tight fit. Air that seeps in through the sides is still full of particulate matter. Bad news for those with beards.

Second, the mask needs to have a filter that’s fine enough to remove the tiny particulate that easily enters the body. But when you have a mask that does both, it makes it difficult to breathe, especially under strenuous activity like walking or bicycle commuting.

“It’s really hard to find a satisfactory solution,” said Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “I personally wear a surgical mask in the winter, not necessarily for air pollution but for warmth.”

Effective respirators should remove 95 percent of fine air pollution particles, size 0.3 microns or smaller. Masks that are up to snuff will have a “N95” rating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a list of manufactures selling N95 respirators, but does not endorse any. 

These masks need a fit test to ensure they form a tight seal on the face and the filters need to be replaced often.

Passing air through those strong filters also makes it hard to breathe, making it harder for the body to deliver oxygen to the muscles and, thus, harder to move.

That’s why the Utah Division of Air Quality doesn’t review or make recommendations on what pollution masks Utah consumers should buy. 

“Our employees who use respirators are under medical monitoring to determine if they are in good physical condition before using a negative pressure respirator,” said director Bryce Bird, in an email provided by the division. “The use of these products are a personal choice that should consider the physical fitness of the individual.”

There are other, more effective steps Utahns can take to limit their exposure to air pollution instead.

Moench recommends buying for an air purifier for the bedroom. 

“You spend a third of your life in your bedroom, so you can clean up the air you’re exposed to quite well,” he said. “There are a lot of relatively inexpensive standalone filtration units.”

Many smaller purifiers fall in the $50-$200 price range. Those willing to invest a little more can install an electronic purifier on their central heating systems for around $1,500.

While it may seem counterintuitive, it’s also better to walk or bike during a bad air day rather than commute by car, especially if you can avoid busy roads. 

A study last year in London found pollution levels can be up to 21 percent higher in a car with the windows rolled up versus outside. One study conducted during rush hour in Atlanta found twice as much particulate and emissions pollution inside cars compared to the roadside air.

“People who are driving and exposing themselves to traffic congestion, they’re typically breathing whatever is coming out of the exhaust of the cars in front of them,” Moench said. 

Health officials also strongly advise against wood burning, especially during inversion events.

Still, Moench said he understands the allure to wear pollution masks, particularly during long spells of smog which can leave many on the Wasatch Front feeling helpless.

“It’s a relatively easy, and in some cases, a cheap solution, at least in their minds,” Moench said. “Maybe ... they feel a little frustrated and even fatalistic that policymakers aren’t taking the issue seriously — ‘At least I can do this to protect myself.’ I don’t disagree with that thought process, but certainly they ought to have the information in hand on what they are or are not able to accomplish by doing that.”

Moench figures the surgical mask he wears for warmth during his bicycle commute only removes around 10 to 15 percent of the particulate matter. But it’s still 10 percent less than he would have otherwise inhaled. 

“That’s not a lot but it’s certainly worth doing,” he said.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or Follow her on or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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