Sick and tired from breathing in toxic air, Tom Druk decides to put a mask on the problem
According to a recent article on The Guardian, air pollution kills more people every year than malaria and AIDS combined. New studies have even revealed that metallic nanoparticles accumulate in the brain over time in abundant quantities and can be linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Levels of toxicity in the air have been on the rise in parallel to the meteoric growth of Asian cities like Saigon over the last few decades, but are now reaching critical levels. With more and more cars hitting the streets every day, smog regularly chokes out the sun over the sunny Saigon skyline. The time to seek out some form of protection has never been more pronounced.
I sit down for a chat with Tom Druk, co-founder of Air Quality Blue (AQblue, VND150,000 for 5 masks or VND250,000 for 10 masks) masks, on how best to save our lungs and brains.
Tom started AQblue after moving to Beijing in 2014 and feeling the effects of the horrendous air pollution there firsthand. Frustrated with his deteriorating health and unsatisfied with the inadequate mask options on the market, he decided to start making his own.
“Beijing is famous for having atrocious air. I moved there in the winter and immediately felt the effects of the pollution. I was staying in a hostel in the Hutong area of the old city, an area with very old buildings with no insulation, where they put blankets over the doors to try and keep the heat in. I would wake up the first two weeks and it felt like someone was physically sitting on my chest, it was that bad,” Tom says. “So I went out and bought a mask, one of the medical masks so popular in this part of the world, with the little teddy bears on it or whatever. Mentally I felt much better, thinking that now I was protected, but I still felt bad.
Back then it was a very hard task to find a comfortable, affordable mask that could effectively filter out air pollution particles. After some research, Tom discovered that even certain Western-branded masks were found to be counterfeit.
“I felt that the only way to maintain quality control over protective masks was to manufacture them myself,” he says. And so he and his partners opened their own factory in Vietnam with the intention of exporting them to China. However, after living in Saigon and jumping on a motorbike himself, it didn’t take long to see that the need for protection from air pollution here was just as dire.
Typically, a reading of above 100 micrograms per cubic metre is considered unhealthy (Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment considers up to 300 to be a ‘safe’ level). The Air Quality Index (AQI) is an international index used by government agencies for judging air quality.
“In the 150 to 300 range of the AQI, the pollution be- comes visible. You can see it as a hanging smog in the air,” Tom says. “At a level of 500, which is the upper level of the index, you’re getting to something like Mad Max territory. What we’re trying to explain to people, though, is that you should be wearing a mask even when you can’t see the pollution. If you wear a mask for the worst days of the year, that’s great, but if you’re not wearing the mask for all the other days where it’s still over 100, it’s actually much worse for you. Think of it as a constant low dose of harmful particles, the smallest of which are entering your bloodstream and then into your heart and brain where they accumulate. You really need to wear it all the time based on what the AQI reads. For anything over 100 you should have some kind of protection.”
As of last year, Saigon now has its own real-time air quality monitor set up on the roof of the US Consulate in District 1, accessible online. Today as I sit writing this on an overcast afternoon, the index sits at a yellow ‘moderate’ level of 59. Hanoi, meanwhile, reads at an orange ‘unsafe’ level of 139. To compare, last October, while Saigon was blanketed with appalling smog which officials were quick to blame on Indonesia’s raging peat fires, the index reached a ‘hazardous’ peak of 365. Beyond an AQI level of 300, it is advised that you remain indoors.
Where Saigon gets tricky is the AQI, comparatively speaking, isn’t that bad here. We have a monsoon season and lots of rain. “The problem here is that the pollution is very localized,” Tom says. “You might have an AQI reading of 50 on the roof of the embassy, but down on the street at peak hour on a busy road like Cach Mang Thang Tam, the reading could be as high as 300 or more. The exhaust fumes coming out of those hundreds of idling exhaust pipes become trapped in the canyon formed by the tall buildings. What people need to understand is that the long-term effect of taking in such harmful fumes and particles day after day is fatal.
“People think just by wearing a medical mask, they are protected,” Tom continues. “But that’s simply not the case. While they do block out the largest of particles, the ones you can see, they offer no protection at all against the smallest and most deadly particles.”
This is a problem which is not unique to Vietnamese cities. A 2013 Hong Kong study explored this ‘street canyon’ effect of air pollution by placing an air quality meter on the roof of a bus and driving it through the city. What they found was that the air quality on narrow streets which formed a canyon with tall buildings on either side was much worse than wide roadways that had even ten times the amount of traffic.
“If you think about Saigon, though, here it’s a lot worse,” Tom says. “So many of the city’s streets form these canyons, and the amount of congestion that be- comes stuck inside during peak hour is enormous. Dirty buses, thousands of motorbikes, and the ever-increasing numbers of cars which clog the streets.”
A lot of the intensity of this pollution also depends on the climate. “Some cities are never going to be as bad as other cities,” Tom says. “For example, if you compare with Beijing, which is an arid basin surrounded by coal plants and encroaching desert, Ho Chi Minh City has it much better, having a tropical climate with a rainy season and being not too far from the coast.”
While the rain and humidity help to control the pollution to some extent, it’s the type of pollution here that is really bad. It’s also really bad for masks with the oil in the air from combustion engines destroying most pollution mask filters very quickly.
“Engine exhaust particles, which form the bulk of Saigon’s air pollution, are very, very small, smaller than 0.3 micrometers,” Tom explains. “It also depends a lot on the type and age of engine, the kind of gasoline, and the proximity you are from the engine. Some these ultrafine particles get as small as 0.05 micrometers when they come out of the tail pipe, and become bigger as they leave.”
There’s a physics to the way these particles hang together in the air once they get jettisoned out of the exhaust pipe. Generally, the further from the exhaust pipe you are, the bigger the particles are going to be. “It’s like asteroids colliding in space,” he says. “But instead of blasting apart, these microscopic particles combine or stick together when they encounter each other. The nanoparticles which come out of the engine hit other particles and dust in the floating air, and very quickly you have a mass building up that you can see.”
As a simple way for people to wrap their heads around the nano-scale size of these particles, Tom and his team devised a classification system to help people get an idea of the scale of just how tiny these particles are, based on food. “So picture a grain of sand. That would be at the upper end of the particle matter (PM) spectrum. A grain of sand measures at about 90 micrometers, or PM90. Using our Chinese food scale, PM90 is a marinated pig on a spit. Easy enough to stop, right, even by putting your hand over your mouth. While at the smallest end of the spectrum you have particular matter of 0.3 micrometers, or PM0.3. That’s a grain of uncooked rice. These guys are the particles that are so tiny they directly enter the bloodstream once they are in the lungs. In terms of mass, something like 90 percent of pollution particles in the air, when you’re stuck in a Saigon traffic jam, are of this size. So imagine a grain of rice next to a pig. That’s how small the particles are which our masks are able to block.”
The whole thing is a percentages game in terms of how much of what is in the air you’re actually absorbing into your body. PM0.3 is the lower end of the particle scale you can actually ingest, but also the most dangerous. AQblue’s moto-R mask stops 95 percent of particles 0.3 micrometers and larger. The accumulation of such particles in the brain and vital organs is attributed to heart attack and stroke, and possibly also Alzheimer’s disease. What it does is aggravate genetic predispositions and makes these things worse, which is why it’s contributed such a high number of deaths each year.Ready to Exhale
Mesh filters become impractical with particles as small as PM0.3. The particles shoot straight through the net. What it takes to stop them is static electricity. Tom’s masks employ something called an electric filter, which is charged with static electricity during the manufacturing process. Such filters were developed in the 90s and are standard in workplace safety masks used on construction sites and in manufacturing.
“It works like an electromagnet and pulls the particles in,” Tom explains. “They get curved in like a magnet. These exhaust particles carry a charge, which is what allows them to ‘stick’ together. This filter is the main reason our masks are different to the standard face masks on the street. Without a filter, with an electro-static component, you’re exposing yourself to the smallest particle matter, the really bad stuff.”
But even with the crucial electric filter, a mask won’t be properly effective unless it forms a seal around your face. Medical masks, seemingly the go-to choice of protection for most Saigon denizens, still allow air to come in through the sides.
“The whole mask itself needs to be the filter,” Tom stresses. “You’ll know right away if you’ve got a mask that doesn’t work because it won’t be hot. The filter material acts as a natural insulator. If it’s not sealing your face, it’s not going to work.”
For this reason Tom’s masks employ an air valve to release the moisture and cool off your face. “A lot of people when they see the mask think the valve is what’s stopping the pollution from getting in when in fact it’s what’s letting the air out. It’s what makes the mask breathable and comfortable to wear.”
While there are other companies offering masks with the same electro-static filter, you often have to go to some length to acquire them, whether that be through a hardware or camping supply store or by paying up to USD40 for one online. But what is perhaps the most disturbing aspect to the manufacturing of these filtered masks is the lack of regulation and misinformation being bandied about when it comes to what works and for how long.
AQblue base their efficiency standards off the US Center for Disease’s NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) guidelines in the production of their air pollution filters. “But outside the workplace there is no regulatory body on air pollution protection devices or the use of filtering masks, not in the US, not anywhere in the world,” says Tom. “So these companies who make these things and distribute them to the general populace can just say whatever they want. You have these medical masks that say they’re air pollution masks when they’re nothing of the sort. It’s a joke. Even these hi-tech expensive masks you find on the internet can only last up to a few weeks at most, no matter what they’re advertised as.”
It’s a scary thought. Surgical masks, for example, were designed to protect patients from the transfer of fluids and bacteria in the hospital environment and offer little to no protection from harmful exhaust particles. Even worse are the cheap and colorful variety found out on the street, which can do little more than stop sunburn and dust. Yet people still hold the belief that they are somehow filtering out air pollution.
“Some of these masks you’re seeing out on the market could even be doing more harm then good in the long run,” Tom tells me. “For example, masks which employ a carbon filter, which is designed to trap gas, are only supposed to be used for up to two weeks. After that the filter becomes saturated and actually starts leaking the carbon back out again. And yet I’ve seen packaging on some of these masks which say they can be worn for up to three months. It’s blatant misinformation and it’s harming people in the long run.”
“If it says it’s good for up to two weeks, some people will keep using the mask beyond that anyway, thinking they’re saving money,” he adds.
But it’s not just carbon filters which limit the life of protective masks. All filtered masks degrade over time. The pollution in the air builds up on the electric filter and it degrades. The longer you use a mask the less effective it becomes at its job.
After talking to Tom, I feel almost afraid to leave my own house for fear of inhaling nanoparticles of metal dust from exhaust fumes and having them make their way up into my brain. My cavalier attitude towards simply holding my breath while overtaking a bus now seems a little naïve.
“It’s all about raising awareness,” Tom says. “People need to know how to protect themselves and their loved ones. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. That’s my mission.”
IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN