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A British friend, married to a Chinese wife and with a young child, went off to Beijing, where he had found a job as an English teacher so that his wife could spend some time with her mother. He was in good spirits when he left London. Yet, within a few weeks, he was back. Although a healthy 40-year-old he claimed that the air in Beijing had left him struggling to breathe.

Why do Chinese wear masks? The answer is contained in my friend’s dilemma. Sadly, the air quality in Chinese cities is among the world’s worst.  And despite action by the authorities to fight the perpetual smog that blights the city, recent data from autumn 2017 shows that Beijing was still one of the worst polluted cities in China.

Visitors to Hong Kong and Beijing will immediately be struck by a mass of masked people walking around. So much so that my friend also told me that it was practically impossible to recognise anyone in the street because all you saw was a pair of eyes!

Read more: How does air pollution hits kids growth?

The threat of spreading viruses

But Chinese people do not just wear masks in their cities because of terrible air pollution. They also wear them as a courtesy to others. In particular, if they fall sick, they believe that a mask helps to stem the spread of germs.

Recent history justifies their concern. The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in Hong Kong 2002 was particularly savage. It infected people from 37 countries and killed 774 people worldwide, resulting in a near pandemic. Understandably, new threats can trigger alarm.

Only a couple of years ago the threat of a similar Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) prompted Hong Kong to raise its health warning to red alert and led to the closure of many schools. In densely populated cities viruses can spread fast. So residents of big cities will don masks as a precautionary measure.

Fashion accessory or insulator?

Cultural reasons also explain why Chinese do wear masks – and not just ones that filter bad air quality! The Chinese have a tendency to be reserved anyway and young female commuters, navigating over-crowded cities, may prefer to avoid conversation on public transport. To put it simply, I’m keeping my lips sealed. Literally!

Neither do Chinese share the Western desire to get an overall tan when they visit the seaside. Another kind of mask (known as a face-kini mask) is favoured over sun cream and sombrero by some bathers. The mask covers their entire face, apart from the eyes, nose and mouth, and offers protection from the heat.

In China, an ethos of hard work permeates the culture. The need to maintain a pleasing demeanor may account for a company’s recent decision to allow its employees to wear masks so they do not feel the pressure to smile all the time!

So masks have a certain fashion cache in China that they may not do elsewhere. At a recent China Fashion Week designers even incorporated stylish face masks into some of their sportswear collections!

Terrible air quality

But by far the most pressing reason that Chinese wear masks is, of course, the one we started out with. A recent University of California report calculated that about 1.6 million people die each year in China from heart, lung and stroke problems as a consequence of air pollution. That’s the equivalent of 4,400 people each day.

Sadly, China is one of the world’s worst offenders in terms of air quality. The country’s incredible economic growth is partly built on an abundant supply of cheap, dirty fossil fuels.  Coal burning for heat, cooking, and electricity generation, vehicle emissions, and airborne dust are widely considered the main sources of both PM2.5 and other pollutants. Also known as ultrafine particulates, PM2.5 consists of solids and liquids. Its sources include black carbon from incomplete combustion as well as sulfates and nitrates.

 

A problem seemingly without solution

So why do Chinese wear masks? Almost half of China’s population is breathing air that would be classified as unhealthy in the west. The most dangerous pollutants include airborne particles that have a diameter of fewer than 2.5 microns.

The pollution is far from being a new phenomenon. Air quality in Chinese cities has been abysmal for a long time. But awareness really grew after the 2006 summer Olympics in Beijing. Sadly, the problem seems to be getting worse. Last winter saw some of China’s worst-ever air pollution as high concentrations of particles less than 2.5 μm in diameter (PM2.5) enveloped the capital. Levels of such ultrafine particles surpassed 500 μg per cubic meter of air in both of the recent incidents in China. That level is twice the daily concentration of 250 µg/m³ that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers hazardous to human health.

Read more: What are the causes of air pollution?

Is it a trend that will spread?

A combination of health and cultural reasons contribute to the Chinese affinity for masks. But perhaps the truth is that a combination of poor air quality and the increased possibility of airborne viruses will make it more likely that masks become more widespread. So perhaps the next question is not – why do Chinese wear masks? But, rather, why do most citizens of big cities wear masks? Fundamentally, because the authorities are too slow to address environmental concerns.

Still, there is hope. Take the similarity between Los Angeles and Beijing. Both are hemmed in by sea and hills, meaning that the bad air has nowhere to go. But the once murky yellow haze that obscured the LA skyline has now given way to bluer skies thanks to stricter environmental regulations.

For cities like Beijing, however, the outlook is bleak. Even former president Barack Obama was once moved to comment – back in 2014 – that ‘you would not want your kids growing up in Beijing right now because they could not breathe’. So no wonder the Chinese like to wear masks. More a necessity than a fashion accessory, so it would seem.

Read More: How does air pollution affect your health?