The country's worsening air quality is at the top of
the list of concerns of China's stability-obsessed leaders, anxious
to douse potential unrest as a more affluent urban population turns
against a growth-at-all-costs economic model that has poisoned much
of the country's air, water and soil.
Authorities have invested billions in various projects to fight
pollution, but none so far has solved the problems caused by cars,
coal-burning power plants and outdated factories that spew millions
of tons of toxins into the air.
It is estimated that air pollution in particular causes an estimated
350,000 to 500,000 premature deaths in China every year, according
to an article in the medical journal "The Lancet" co-authored by
China's former health minister, Chen Zhu.
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.
"The vast majority of face masks on the market give no protection
against PM2.5, even if the manufacturers claim they do," said Lei
Limin, vice chairman of the China Textile Commerce Association,
referring to the small particulates that pose the greatest risk to
human health because they easily pass into the lungs.
Lei said his group is pushing for a national standard for anti-smog
face masks, echoing calls last week by the China Consumers
Face masks in China have traditionally been categorized as personal
protective equipment mainly used for medical or industrial purposes.
The country has no quality standards for face masks for personal
use, despite the surge in demand.
Last year, consumers on the country's biggest online e-commerce
site, Taobao, spent 870 million yuan ($140 million) on anti-smog
goods like face masks and air purifiers.
Taobao, owned by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, saw a 181 percent
increase in the number of people who bought face masks compared with
the previous year.
"People are looking for anything that can really help them, that can
help reduce any kind of health risk as a result of the pollution,"
said James Roy, an associate principal at Shanghai-based China
Market Research Group.
[to top of second column]
FACE MASK VILLAGE
Local media has recently questioned the effectiveness of some masks,
with state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) targeting
Dadian, a village in the eastern province of Shandong, where 300
workshops supply 80 percent of the country's ordinary face masks.
Dadian saw face mask output value more than triple from 350 million
yuan in 2007 to 1.1 billion yuan in 2012, when the village produced
900 million masks.
The CCTV report said some workshops in Dadian had been producing
cotton masks with filters in them. The masks were then sold to some
companies that claimed they protected people against the effects of
pollution. A workshop owner quoted in the report said, however, that
the filters might not work.
The masks were not effective against PM2.5 particles, the CCTV
Jiang Xiubin, who owns the BinHai Face Mask factory and who is head
of the Dadian face mask association, said the village only produces
ordinary face masks, not anti-smog ones.
Asked if the producers would consider upgrading their masks to
address people's concerns about air pollution, Jiang said that was
not yet part of the plan.
($1 = 6.2250 Chinese yuan)
(Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Matt Driskill)
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