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Fear the Airpocalypse
When Face Masks Fail: China Needs Smog Solution

When it comes to finding the upside of heavy smog, no one beats China. One Chinese general claimed it makes for an excellent laser defense. A Chinese state media outlet even claimed it boosts the country’s collective sense of humor. Now we can add another item to the list of smog’s benefits: economic stimulus. Face mask sales by China’s largest online retailer jumped 181 percent last year, largely due to Chinese citizens looking for a cheap defense against breathing soot-filled air.

There’s just one problem. As Reuters reports, a consumer watchdog group found that three quarters of the face masks sold don’t actually filter the tiny and dangerous particulate matter floating around:

Face masks have become the norm for many city residents, although only nine out of 37 types tested recently by the China Consumers Association met required standards in terms of filtering particulate matter and enabling easy breathing.

The most expensive, priced at 199 yuan ($32.15), was no better than one of the cheapest, a disposable mask that costs 1 yuan, the association said in a report on the tests.

Air pollution is a major threat. A 2007 World Bank estimate put the cost to China at 5.8 percent of its GDP. A World Health Organization (WHO) report found that “one in eight of all global deaths in 2012 was linked to polluted air.” Roughly seven million people died due to air pollution in 2012, according to the WHO, making it “the world’s single biggest environmental health risk.”

Despite the “smog as laser defense” spin and other absurd dismissals of the problem, Beijing’s leadership is taking this problem seriously, even going so far as to declare war on pollution. The government is aggressively pursuing exploitation of the country’s shale gas reserves and appears to be ahead of schedule in producing it in commercial quantities. Shale gas could displace the much dirtier coal and thus help clear the air. So could nuclear power. But China can do more: It can incentivize remote work, which can also reduce the dangerously high levels of particulate matter due to car use.

China’s face mask manufacturers may take a hit, but we’re sure the rest of the country will figure out how to soldier on.

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