According to the World Health Organization, nine out of 10 people are breathing contaminated air, and seven million people die from it annually. Short term symptoms in a healthy person include headaches, breathing difficulties, and sore eyes. For children and older people, the health effects of bad air are more severe. China and India regularly make the headlines for unhealthy air, but it can strike anywhere, at any time — through bushfires, construction, bad traffic, or dust storms, including throughout the United States. Without taking the proper precautions, you may feel the negative effects, even if you’re otherwise healthy. Here are nine ways you can protect yourself from air pollution while traveling.
1. Check the air quality of the destination before you travel.
Air pollution is a major problem throughout much of Asia, particularly when the burning season is in full swing. Dust carried on the wind from the Gobi Desert blankets South Korea in the spring, while New Delhi has particularly bad air quality in November and December. If possible, plan your trip so it doesn’t coincide with one of these annual occurrences. You can find a destination’s air rating on pollution-monitoring websites, such as Aqicn and Air Matters. The former gives you historical data, which you can use to help you avoid annual peaks.
2. Pack a mask.
You’ll find lots of surgeon-style masks sold in markets and pharmacies, but they won’t do much to protect you because they’re too loose-fitting (and often made of a single layer of fabric). Invest in something that’s certified to do the job — you can find plenty of good-quality options online.
Look for masks rated to at least N95 (which means the mask removes 95 percent of air particles at least 0.3 microns in diameter or larger) or FFP3 (meaning the mask will only leak a maximum of 5 percent of air and filters 99 percent of air particles at 0.3 microns).
I bought one from the Cambridge Mask Company, which only cost around $12 (although a downside is that it had a limited 90 hours of use). If you’re going away somewhere longer, consider packing a couple to see you through, or buying a more heavy-duty one with changeable filters. Scientists from Edinburgh’s Institute for Occupational Medicine tested different masks bought from Beijing shops and of the nine they analyzed, the 3M9322 came out on top.
3. Wear your face mask properly.
A poorly-fitted face mask is ineffective. Choose the right size for your or your children’s face (children should be bought masks specifically for kids) and adjust it so that it hugs the area on either side of the bridge of your nose, and underneath your chin. When you breathe in, you should feel the mask pull gently against your face. This shows there’s no air getting in through gaps that shouldn’t be there.
Also, pay attention to your mask’s wear instructions. Only put it on when you need to, and keep track of how many hours you wear it for: Most are effective for 90 or so hours of use before the filter needs to be changed.
4. And wear your mask, even if no one else is.
It’s tempting to ditch the mask if no one else is wearing one, and you might feel a bit self-conscious at times. But think of it this way: Breathing in toxic air is on par with smoking a pack of cigarettes a day — with all the negative health implications that come with that. You (hopefully) wouldn’t light up just because everyone else around you is smoking, so don’t neglect the mask just because you’re the only person with one on.
5. Look after your skin.
Studies show ambient air pollution settles on your skin, where it can cause all kinds of health problems. Short-term effects range from dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis, while long-term issues include premature aging and even cancer. Apply sunscreen and moisturizer to your skin so you have a barrier between you and the pollution, and wash it all off with a cleanser at the end of each day. It’s a good idea to rinse your hair and clothes as much as possible, too.
6. Pay attention to air quality.
Pollution peaks and dips throughout the day. If your phone data is turned off, you might not have access to air monitoring websites, in which case, pay attention to yourself and your surroundings — especially if you’re particularly susceptible to the negative effects. Physical symptoms of poor air quality can include coughing, sneezing, stinging or watery eyes, headaches, or a congested or bloody nose.
You can often see pollution in the air, too. Things will look hazy and visibility may be lower than usual. Unlike fog, which looks white, smog has a yellow-gray coloring and often smells of burning. If you experience any of these symptoms or notice a change in the air, limit exercise and consider heading indoors until things have cleared.
7. Stay indoors when pollution is high.
Medical experts recommend staying inside on heavily polluted days. When the air is bad, opt for the metro or shared (ideally electric) taxis over walking, mopeds, or tuk-tuks. Plan indoor activities, like museums, cafes, and cinemas, and avoid areas where air pollution will be worse, like roads and construction sights. If possible, choose a hotel with purifiers in its rooms so you have a clean-air haven to come back to each day, and remember to keep your windows shut until the smog has subsided.
8. Move somewhere else.
Scientists have discovered that pollution isn’t just bad for your physical health. Spending days, weeks, or months in poor air can have a negative effect on your well-being. If you’re traveling or on vacation and have the luxury of freedom, then consider relocating. It might feel heartbreaking to visit a place and leave before you’ve seen the sights, but you have to ask yourself how much you’ll really enjoy the experience knowing you’re breathing in bad air every time you step outside.
9. Don’t freak out.
The worst thing about air pollution is its pervasiveness. It seeps through open windows, underneath doors, and in through the tiniest gaps. It blankets huge cities and settles in valleys, turning forests and fields smoggy. It’s not nice knowing the air you’re breathing is harmful, but if you protect your well-being as much as you can, you’ll be doing a lot to limit the negative effects. Plus, in places where anti-pollution masks aren’t a common sight, walking around in yours will help normalize it, hopefully encouraging others to protect themselves too.