Masking a Larger Issue – Asia’s Air Quality Problem

March 3, 2008

Asia is intriguing.

It’s a monstrous continent with multiple civilizations and amazing landscapes. From China to India, this region is growing faster in economics and population than anywhere on earth, but it’s not without consequence.

The region now serves as home to many U.S. technical support call centers. They produce the majority of our computer and home entertainment components. And we owe China so much money that if they cashed in today they’d be able to purchase most of the businesses in our country.

So why don’t we take Asians seriously? I think it’s the surgical masks.

Similar to Michael Jackson of the early 1990s, many Asian—and particularly Chinese—people regularly wear white or blue surgical masks outside. It’s not because they don’t want to be recognized, it’s because of an air-quality issue that plagues their country and an incorrect perception that a simple paper mask can ward off the toxins in the air.

In Wildfire Smoke, A Guide for Public Health Officials—written in 2002 by Harriet Ammann, Washington Department of Health; Robert Blaisdell and Michael Lipsett, California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Susan Lyon Stone, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and Shannon Therriault, Missoula City-County Health Department—there’s a paragraph that explores the effectiveness of these little paper masks. It says…

In general, wearing a mask is not an effective strategy to reduce your exposure to wildfire smoke…..Surgical masks that trap smaller particles are also available, but these masks are designed to filter air coming out of the wearer’s mouth, and do not provide a good seal to prevent inhalation of small particles or combustion gases.  As a result, these tend to be no better than dust masks.  In fact, masks may actually be detrimental, giving the wearers a false sense of security, which may encourage increased physical activity and time spent outdoors, resulting in increased exposures.

Even though the mask technique might be flawed, we could learn something from China’s approach. And we might have to react sooner than you think.

While our Industrial Revolution ended more than a century ago, China is experiencing theirs right now. With its associated growth of manufacturing and construction has come enormous pollution and environmental damage.

Dark, choking clouds of soot hang over their cities and acidic rain pelts their countryside. These results are no surprise as China is now the largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world. Understandably, China’s actions are now impacting the rest of the world. Pollutants have shown up in Oregon, Colorado and other states, and experts believe it will only get worse.

In fact, on CCN’s American Morning February 27, they told viewers how researchers at the top of Mt. Werner in Colorado have found tiny amounts of mercury in the air. This is at 10,500 feet.

What makes this significant, according to Dr. Anna Gannet Hallar and Ian McCubbin of Storm Peak Laboratory at the top of Mt. Werner, is that these toxins are thousands of miles from their source and are still at measurable levels.

Satellites show this pollution traveling from many countries in Asia all the way across the Pacific to the west coast. It’s akin to Los Angeles pollution wending its way to the French Alps. But now that it’s happening, what can we do?

Some have said that we need to stop buying things from Asia to teach them a lesson. Right. People are really going to forgo their iPods, GPS navigation systems, plastic stocking stuffers, lead-painted toys and everything from Brookstone just to make a point.

Others have said we need to pressure legislators to impose sanctions on Asian companies that export goods to our country. Yeah, right. They own so much of our debt that they could probably just buy the United States and use us as a housing development for their billions of people.

No, I think reacting to the Asian pollution problem requires more education and disclosure. We need to know more about how our environment is being damaged every day by the toxins China and other countries are launching into the sky.

We need to think before we act. Most of all, we shouldn’t act as if this isn’t our problem to deal with. That would be akin to hiding behind a worthless paper mask during a forest fire.