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New Travel Accessory for Beijing: Gas Masks

• Christina Larson via

As I prepare for an upcoming trip to Beijing, both expat and Chinese friends have been sending me suggestions of the best gas mask to buy. An item considered rare or unnecessary as of late 2012 is now highly recommended for outdoor commutes during Beijing’s smoggiest days. But which mask should I use?

One friend, who works for an environmental nonprofit in Beijing, advised: “I have a Sportsta mask made by Respro, a U.K. company, which has a replaceable filter, which you can replace every 2 to 3 months with regular use. However, size-wise, it’s not great for women, especially women who have smaller faces.” To function optimally, he added, “It should be a snug fit.” Ideally, I should locate a store in the U.S. that sells them, but as fallback, such high-end foreign-made gas masks are now selling briskly on, China’s leading e-retailer.

In addition to buying face masks, people in China who can afford them are also picking up indoor air filters. Most office workers spend 80 percent of their time indoors, but Beijing’s poorly insulated buildings can’t fully keep the smog outside. Meanwhile, in the wake of a recent scandal over China’s failure to properly regulate bottled water, I’ve also been advised to purchase equipment for filtering water at home or in hotel rooms. For all China’s success in building some kinds of modern infrastructure—airports and highways, for instance—a string of recent public-health lapses has given rise to a grim, do-it-yourself approach to pollution control and personal safety. (To be sure, there’s a limit to which anyone can truly insulate herself from the city she breathes in.)

The uptick in public alarm over pollution in China has two sources. First, despite growing government focus on the problem, air pollution in Beijing and other major Chinese cities is getting worse. The China Meteorological Administration recently released data showing that in 2013, major Chinese cities suffered the smoggiest March in 52 years. Second, with an expanding middle class clamoring for information and scientific studies spreading more quickly and easily online via social media, the conversation about the impacts of air pollution has heated up rapidly over the past year.

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