The cheapest, simplest way you can protect yourself from smog and air pollution in Lahore and Karachi is with a respirator—not surgical or cloth masks which do not work at all.
People wear the green surgical masks, thinking that they offer protection. A surgical mask does not sit snug around your nose and mouth and so you still inhale the bad air. Surgical masks were made only to protect a doctor from say blood or fluid splatter. They have no use in protecting your lungs.
The thin loose surgical masks are completely ineffective against particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). Particulate Matter, as its name suggests, are very small solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. You breathe them in and they penetrate and lodge deep inside your lungs. PM is a mix of organic and inorganic matter such as dust, pollen, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets.
The experts say there is the same problem with cheap cloth masks that people have started wearing. The cloth is fibre that is porous and the PM still passes through it.
Anyone who wants to really stop breathing in the polluted air needs a respirator, which are specially built to stop you from inhaling harmful particles.
You need to look for the surgical, NIOSH-approved N95 respirators which are recommended the world over to trap the deadly PM2.5 in its tracks and stop them from entering your lungs. They have been cleared by the WHO and USA’s Food and Drug Administration.
You can easily buy them in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Faisalabad. One international company that sells respirators (especially for construction workers) is 3M Pakistan. These respirators filter between 95% and 99.9% of pollution. Other companies that make respirators are Honeywell, Pro-Health and Xiaomi. You can buy them online.
Generally speaking, a basic respirator costs Rs100 and the upper-most model costs Rs300. They are easy to wear and breathe through. The respirators feel like cloth, but in fact are made of polymers that act as an advanced air filtration system to trap the microscopic PM2.5 that the human body’s natural defense mechanisms – hair in the nose – are unable to. The only downside is that you can only use them for one week after which you have to throw them away as they become ineffective.
There are more expensive respirators available as well. These ones look like the gas masks you see in films. They are priced starting Rs3,000 and are effective for up to one year of use. These offer 95% filtration and have a dual-filtration system which needs to be replaced every few weeks. The filters are sold separately.
Where you can buy them
You can buy the N5 respirator online. In Karachi, you go to Bolton Market’s Nicol Road. Lahore’s GOR-II area, near the SDO office sells them. In Rawalpindi, they can be purchased in Saddar.
Beware of fakes
The markets are rife with counterfeit respirators claiming to be the original, WHO- and FDA-approved devices. All you need to do is a simple internet search on your phone before buying one. For example, with the 3M respirators, the bottom of the box has a unique Secure Code (top) and Lot Code (below). On the 3M Safe Guard site, you can input these codes to verify the product on the spot.
Men with beards who put on a respirator need to know that this may affect the apparatus. You have to make it fit on your face by adjusting the straps to ensure no space is left. This is why men are advised to shave their beards if they need to wear this safety equipment. This advisory comes from the FDA, which has a blog on its website called “To Beard or not to Beard”, complete with a pictorial depiction of what facial hairstyles men can keep for the respirators to fit over.