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Face masks in Beijing/China

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Going to China in October. Is the air/pollution really bad enough in Beijing and elsewhere that we should bring face masks or some other type of protection?

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    You will see 1000s wearing a mask, everyday and everywhere in Beijing. Mostly the cotton surgical type, for sale, everywhere, cheap. Effective? Good question. Some wear the mask for pollution, some to avoid the neighbor's germ, some to avoid infecting neighbor. Winter the worst coz of massive coal burning. But difficult to eat with mask and that is one of Beijing top attractions.

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    This, like so many questions about inoculations before visiting China, looks as though it is looking for reassurance that no such fuss is necessary. There are certainly plenty of foreigners resident in China who cannot be bothered with face masks who will tell you that 'it's not that bad'.

    But walk down the street wearing a proper mask and everyone looks at you: you're making them consider that which they know is true but wish to ignore because they can't do anything about it. Truth to tell, the air in Beijing is often so bad that you should be wearing a mask even sitting at your desk indoors. The suggestion that you stay indoors isn't so you avoid the air, because of course unless you're in a room with sealed windows and central air filtering it's getting in, too (that's how you're still breathing), but because you're exerting yourself less and so breathing less of it in. But as a visitor you're going to be walking about, exerting yourself, or there's little point in visiting.

    But, like other medical questions, this isn't something that you should be relying on hearsay or on-line chit-chat about, but should be consulting properly qualified experts aware of your sensitivities, factors such as age, and how long your exposure will be.

    To get some idea of how bad things are for the highly damaging pm2.5 particles, which you'll generally want to avoid altogether, ozone, etc. see

    https://twitter.com/beijingair

    and then this table to explain what your reaction should be and a chart of the past 24 hours' overall AQI:

    http://www.stateair.net/web/post/1/1.html

    You'll also find links for similar air monitors in other cities. There's also a downloadable app for iPhone (and possibly other platforms) which gives all the publicly available air information for each Chinese city, although in most cases that's only from the government, and thus highly unreliable.

    Wearing proper N95 masks that screen out pm2.5 particles (and these are the only masks worth wearing--everything else is just a placebo) is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but there are days when you'll really wish you had one, not because of lung or other internal organ damage that will result from long-term exposure, but because, especially if you come from an area of low pollution, your chest will be sore and your nose perpetually running.

    Monitor the Twitter feed given, and take a few masks. They're easily found at hardware stores in most of the developed world, are not expensive, and weigh next to nothing. If you happen to get windy days with blue sky (itself not a guarantee that things are all right, but loosely linked) there's not much lost and you can give away the masks before you leave. But if the pollution levels get high, as they are almost certain to do, or you react badly, you'll be glad not to have wasted days inside.

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