Krakow’s Essential Accessory: A Smog Mask

The protective gear helps defend against the city’s dangerous air pollution—and can make a fashion statement. Photographs by Tomer Ifrah

Grzegorz Swiech models the latest streetwear in Krakow, Poland, a city plagued by particulate pollution.

Photographer: Tomer Ifrah for Bloomberg Businessweek

Ewa Zelenska-Olczak was nine months pregnant when this photo was shot in March. The 23-year-old master’s student at AGH University of Science & Technology in Krakow, Poland, says she’s almost never without a mask outdoors, especially from October to April. That’s when the city’s air is at its worst, heavy with smog, much of it caused by household stoves that burn coal, wood, and trash to generate heat. Local coal-fired power plants add to the problem. According to the World Health Organization, Krakow’s particulate-matter pollution, a mix of small particles in the air that may affect the heart and lungs, can reach six times the levels considered safe on high-smog-alert days.

Though you won’t find too many residents wearing masks in the summertime, Ewa Zelenska-Olczak says the city also suffers from high smog in the warm-weather months—a “problem of Los Angeles-type smog,” she says.
Photographer: Tomer Ifrah for Bloomberg Businessweek

Some residents don the kind of basic cloth mask used in hospitals. The city’s young, hip, and digitally connected, including Rafal Zralka and Agnieszka Dabrowska, make statements with fashionable masks from companies such as Dragon Mask of Krakow or RZ Mask of Burnsville, Minn. Jvlia Swiech first became active with local environmental groups to raise awareness of the harm inflicted by air pollution four years ago, when she was 13. The masks “communicate the same values, and unite people,” she says. 

Rafal Zralka favors an air-filtration mask made by Minnesota-based RZ Mask. The company was founded in 2010 by Steve Torbenson, a dirt bike rider and enthusiast who realized he needed something to filter out the dust he was breathing in while riding.
Photographer: Tomer Ifrah for Bloomberg Businessweek

The protective gear might lose favor once a law that bans household coal burning in the city, which faces resistance from the local coal industry, takes effect in 2019. —With Marta Waldoch

Private household heating, which often uses low-quality fuel, is responsible for as much as 85 percent of smog in Krakow between October and April, according to the city’s Environmental Protection Inspectorate. Here, Agnieszka Dabrowska wears an RZ mask.
Photographer: Tomer Ifrah for Bloomberg Businessweek

 

“There’s a really big community of people aware of the problem,” says Jvlia Swiech. “We’re smiling to each other when we see others wearing them.”
Photographer: Tomer Ifrah for Bloomberg Businessweek

 

Sławek Sajdak wears a mask that was distributed for free, together with the local newspaper he subscribes to.
Photographer: Tomer Ifrah for Bloomberg Businessweek
There’s no filter on Ania Kurpas’s mask, made by a local fashion designer. Style is a consideration.
Photographer: Tomer Ifrah for Bloomberg Businessweek

 

Residents such as Jakub Podczerwinski might someday have no use for the masks (he’s also wearing an RZ model), if a ban on the household use of coal in the city takes effect, as scheduled, in 2019. The Krakow law requires all old household stoves to be replaced by 2023.
Photographer: Tomer Ifrah for Bloomberg Businessweek
Klaudia Raczek in her RZ mask. There was a month this past winter when Krakow’s air carried about 300 percent of acceptable levels of particulate matter, according to some residents.
Photographer: Tomer Ifrah for Bloomberg Businessweek