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Masking the pollution
Global Times | October 12, 2011 00:32
By Yan Shuang
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A female cyclist wears a mask to protect herself from air pollution as she cycles near Guomao on Tuesday. Photo: Wang Zi/GT

A Beijing-based American doctor has suggested that residents should wear face masks to guard against the capital's worsening air pollution.
However, both Chinese doctors and environmental protection authorities regard his suggestions as unnecessary scaremongering.

As air pollution levels reached a new high after the October 1 National Day holiday, according to data from the US embassy's Air Quality Index (AQI), Dr Richard Saint Cyr posted a warning on his Sina Weibo account Sunday.

Saint Cyr, a family doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital said, "Beijing's air pollution levels are right now astonishingly high and very hazardous to anyone: The AQI at the US Embassy is over 500 – the machine doesn't go higher than that! Please, everyone take care!"

Though many Web users showed great concern over the deteriorating air quality in Beijing after reading his microblog, Chinese doctors, local residents and the Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau seem less worried.

"It was only slight pollution, which was not bad enough for people to wear masks," said Du Shaozhong, deputy head of the bureau, who said Saint Cyr's suggestions did "not reflect the real air conditions" in Beijing.

If air pollution reaches a Level 4 or 5, which means it is serious, the bureau will suggest that people who are vulnerable to disease wear masks, he said.
Saint Cyr's entry received more than 200 reposts, and many sought advice on how to keep away from bad air. 

Saint Cyr believes that if people must be outside, it is essential to wear an effective anti-pollution mask. 

"Theoretically, a professional mask can absorb 95 percent of the bad particles in the air, while a cotton cloth mask can only do 30 percent," he told the Global Times.

Schools and offices should install pollution alert systems, he said, offering access to sources that provide real-time, hourly updates of Beijing's air quality and pollution status.

"The suggestion to wear masks will make trouble out of nothing, as we've had polluted air for a long time, and we shouldn't be living with an American standard," said an anonymous doctor at the People's Hospital of Peking University, who specializes in respiratory diseases.

Doctors will suggest patients with contagious diseases wear masks, but regular masks are not usually effective since they only absorb a small part of the pollutants, he said.

Ren Shaokang, a resident living in Huilongguan, Changping district said he would not wear a mask, although he suffers from tracheitis, a disease of the windpipe.

"I believe in the Chinese official data and don't think the air seriously affects us. Even when we can see the air is bad, white collar workers like us don't have the time to think about wearing masks anyway," he said.

Du said the bureau is trying to improve their service on its Weibo account, and will provide more detailed information about air quality and pollution in the future, with suggestions such as when to wear a mask or whether to stay home in bad air.

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