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New Travel Accessory for Beijing: Gas Masks

A women wearing a mask rides a bicycle on the street during severe pollution on Jan. 23 in Beijing

Photograph by Feng Li/Getty Images

A women wearing a mask rides a bicycle on the street during severe pollution on Jan. 23 in Beijing

As I prepare for an upcoming trip to Beijing, both expat and Chinese friends have been sending me suggestions of the best gas mask to buy. An item considered rare or unnecessary as of late 2012 is now highly recommended for outdoor commutes during Beijing’s smoggiest days. But which mask should I use?

One friend, who works for an environmental nonprofit in Beijing, advised: “I have a Sportsta mask made by Respro, a U.K. company, which has a replaceable filter, which you can replace every 2 to 3 months with regular use. However, size-wise, it’s not great for women, especially women who have smaller faces.” To function optimally, he added, “It should be a snug fit.” Ideally, I should locate a store in the U.S. that sells them, but as fallback, such high-end foreign-made gas masks are now selling briskly on, China’s leading e-retailer.

In addition to buying face masks, people in China who can afford them are also picking up indoor air filters. Most office workers spend 80 percent of their time indoors, but Beijing’s poorly insulated buildings can’t fully keep the smog outside. Meanwhile, in the wake of a recent scandal over China’s failure to properly regulate bottled water, I’ve also been advised to purchase equipment for filtering water at home or in hotel rooms. For all China’s success in building some kinds of modern infrastructure—airports and highways, for instance—a string of recent public-health lapses has given rise to a grim, do-it-yourself approach to pollution control and personal safety. (To be sure, there’s a limit to which anyone can truly insulate herself from the city she breathes in.)

The uptick in public alarm over pollution in China has two sources. First, despite growing government focus on the problem, air pollution in Beijing and other major Chinese cities is getting worse. The China Meteorological Administration recently released data showing that in 2013, major Chinese cities suffered the smoggiest March in 52 years. Second, with an expanding middle class clamoring for information and scientific studies spreading more quickly and easily online via social media, the conversation about the impacts of air pollution has heated up rapidly over the past year.

It’s one thing to vaguely know smog is harmful, but another thing to know, as a recent study by Greenpeace East Asia and the Public Health Faculty of Peking University found, that one component of Beijing smog is arsenic, a known carcinogen and trace byproduct of burning coal. Although the municipal government of Beijing has admirably managed to cap the amount of coal burned within city boundaries, the tonnage of coal burned in adjacent Hebei province roughly doubled between 2000 and 2010 and continues to rise steeply. (According to a study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, nonlocal sources account for 39 percent of Beijing’s PM 2.5 pollution—that is, fine particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and small enough to lodge in the lungs and bloodstream.) The decentralized nature of China’s air-pollution problems also means it’s hard to envision a fast, silver-bullet solution.

Will growing public concern force progress and positive change in China, or simply feed cynicism and mistrust of the government’s ability to protect the public’s basic welfare? More will be revealed. Meantime, make sure your mask fits.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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