Space & Innovation

Face Masks Provide False Hope Against Pollution

They're out of stock in China as pollution increases. But do they actually help?

Exorbitantly high levels of air pollution in Beijing have caused a run on face masks as people look for ways to protect themselves from the smog. Demand is so high that, according to news reports, masks are now in short supply in China's capital.

But, experts said, a closer look at the kinds of masks people get, the way they wear them and the hazards they're facing suggests that the masks are unlikely to help much.

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In fact, images of masked citizens navigating the stress of Beijing highlight the false confidence that people put in face masks in all sorts of situations, including flu outbreaks and operating rooms.

"For so long, people have worn these and believed they are effective," said Lisa Brosseau, a certified industrial hygienist at the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health. "But I believe they give people a false sense of protecting themselves when they are really not getting much protection."

The simplest types of face masks available over the counter are surgical masks, much like the ones that doctors wear while operating on patients.

Surgical masks were designed to protect open wounds from germs in the droplets of mucus that come out of doctors' mouths when they cough, sneeze and breathe. Masks were never intended to protect the people wearing them, though research shows they may help slow the spread of illnesses, at least a little bit.

In a study published last year in the journal PLOS Pathogens, for example, face masks reduced the amount of influenza virus shed into the air by more than two-thirds.

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That might be enough to lower the chances of giving the flu to others, said study author Donald Milton, a specialist in occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

But wearing a surgical mask is not going to eliminate the risk of inhaling unwanted viruses and air pollution. Besides the particles that get through the mask's filter, surgical masks tend to be loose fitting, allowing contaminated air to flow in around the sides.

In Beijing, where levels of pollution have spiked above 750 micrograms per cubic meter this week, wearing a mask that actually reduced the concentration of inhaled particles by half would still expose people to 10 times more than exposure levels deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Scientists are also still debating whether masks actually protect patients from doctors' germs. Despite being used by surgeons for decades, masks have been tested in only a few clinical trials, Brosseau said. And results showed that rates of wound infection in patients were the same, whether their doctors wore masks or not.

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For a step up in protection, consumers can buy a category of mask known technically as N95 respirators, which are generally available at hardware stores. These facemasks are often used in industrial workplace situations to protect against things like lead dust and welding fumes, and they are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to trap 95 percent of particles sent through them in testing situations. N99 and N100 masks are also available.

In order to perform to those standards, though, respirators need to be professionally fitted to each person's individual face to make sure there is a tight seal with no leaks. They don't work for men with beards. And if they truly fit right, they are uncomfortable to wear.

"If it's going to work, it has to fit your face," Milton said. "If you buy a box of these things at the hardware store, it's not clear you're getting anything that's going to work for you."

Even when masks are fitted correctly, Milton added, studies have shown that they're very good at trapping relatively large and extremely small particles, but midsize fine particles are the most likely to slip through. Both viruses and components of air pollution fit into that size category. And it's that size of particle that seems to get stuck in human lungs and cause health problems.

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Overall, experts said, studies suggest that the best way to protect people against pollution and epidemics is not to encourage mask wearing but to address underlying problems, like excessive coal burning or poor health habits.

"We don't want people to put on these masks and think they don't need to get vaccinated or wash their hands or do other routine things like cough into their sleeves," said Pritish Tosh, an infectious diseases physician and researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "If someone chooses to put on a mask, it's up to them. But it's important to do other things first."

Tourists wearing face masks visit Tiananmen Square in heavy smog in Beijing on Feb. 25, 2014. Northern China is braced for more days of hazardous air quality following a week of toxic smog in Beijing that has consistently averaged more than 16 times the World Health Organization's recommended upper limit.

Western Hemisphere Feb. 24, 2012 -- We at Discovery News are loving the new photos of Earth coming in from VIIRS, the biggest and most important instrument of the five aboard NASA's Earth-observing satellite - Suomi NPP. These composite images are put together using a number of swaths of the Earth's surface taken with the Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) over the course of a day as the Suomi NPP satellite orbits the planet from pole to pole. Here we see the western hemisphere from swaths taken on Jan. 4, 2012.

Eastern Hemisphere The Suomi NPP satellite flew over the eastern hemisphere six times during an eight hour time period on Jan 23, 2012. NASA scientist Norman Kuring took those six sets of data and combined them into this image shown here.

Australian View Here NASA scientist Norman Kuring has done the same with the VIIRS data sets taken on Feb. 8, 2012.

Arctic View The newly launched Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (S-NPP) satellite, which was blasted into space on Oct. 28, 2011, circled the Earth 15 times to capture the visual data used for the stunning picture.

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Hot and Cold Here we see the results of the Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) instrument at work on the Suomi NPP satellite. "In the longwave image, heat energy radiated from Earth (in watts per square meter) is shown in shades of yellow, red, blue and white. The brightest-yellow areas are the hottest and are emitting the most energy out to space, while the dark blue areas and the bright white clouds are much colder, emitting the least energy. Increasing temperature, decreasing water vapor, and decreasing clouds will all tend to increase the ability of Earth to shed heat out to space," the NASA CERES team explained.

Keeping Up with the Sun From its vantage 824 kilometers (512 miles) above Earth, the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite gets a complete view of our planet every day. This image from Nov. 24, 2011, was the first complete global image from VIIRS. Rising from the south and setting in the north on the daylight side of Earth, VIIRS images the surface in long wedges measuring 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) across. The swaths from each successive orbit overlap one another, so that at the end of the day, the sensor has a complete view of the globe. The Arctic is missing because it is too dark to view in visible light during the winter. The NPP satellite was placed in a Sun-synchronous orbit, a unique path that takes the satellite over the equator at the same local (ground) time in every orbit. So, when NPP flies over Kenya, it is about 1:30 p.m. on the ground. When NPP reaches Gabon—about 3,000 kilometers to the west—on the next orbit, it is close to 1:30 p.m. on the ground. This orbit allows the satellite to maintain the same angle between the Earth and the Sun so that all images have similar lighting. The consistent lighting is evident in the daily global image. Stripes of sunlight (sunglint) reflect off the ocean in the same place on the left side of every swath. The consistent angle is important because it allows scientists to compare images from year to year without worrying about extreme changes in shadows and lighting. PHOTOS: Sunsets and Other Sky Wonders

Final Checks Electro Magnetic Interference testing of the Suomi NPP satellite at the Ball Aerospace facility.

Behind the Scenes By stitching six swaths together, NASA scientist Norman Kuring takes the Suomi NPP satellite perspective from its polar orbit around Earth at an altitude of 512 miles (about 824 kilometers), and changes it to a 'Blue Marble' view as though it were seen from 7,918 miles (about 12,743 kilometers).

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