A new fashion trend hit the runways at China Fashion Week in Beijing this week, and it was well-timed considering the air quality outside. Models showed off a variety of designer respiratory face masks as they strutted down the catwalk, part of the QIAODAN Yin Peng Sports Wear Collection. High fashion face masks were also on display at this year’s Paris Fashion Week, with Chinese designer Masha Ma adorning models with Swarovski crystal-studded masks to go with her urban-chic collection.
The effort to make pollution protection masks, an unfortunate daily accessory for millions of Chinese, more attractive isn’t limited to the world of high fashion either. In March, cosmetics company Max Factor sponsored a selfie photo contest for consumers of its Sina Weibo makeup to show off their eye makeup while wearing a smog mask. And the effort was extremely popular: in the first week, “more than 33,000 Weibo users have tweeted the campaign’s hashtag, showing off a range of stylish masks paired with meticulously applied eye makeup,” Jing Daily reported.
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) October 29, 2014
Of course, China’s notoriously bad air pollution is more than just a fashion inconvenience; it’s an extremely serious public health concern. Participants in October’s Beijing marathon wore masks and wiped off their skin with water-soaked sponges as pollution levels reached 12 times the recommended daily allotment of smog, sparking criticism of organizers’ failure to cancel the event.
For residents of cities like Beijing, the health risk associated with regular exposure to dangerous levels of air pollution is much more severe. A 2013 report by the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease project linked more than 1.2 million premature deaths in China to PM2.5 pollution (fine particles like soot, mostly resulting from fossil fuel combustion). That accounts for 15 percent of the total deaths in China during 2010 and 40 percent of global air pollution-related deaths.
Last December, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, officially classified outdoor air pollution as a carcinogen. According to their research, exposure to ambient fine particles was estimated to have contributed to 3.2 million premature deaths in 2010 alone, with more than half of the lung cancer deaths occurring in China and other East Asian countries. Tragically, an eight-year-old girl became the youngest ever to be diagnosed with lung cancer in China last year — a diagnosis her doctors attributed to air pollution.
As public pressure mounts and the rest of the world looks on, the Chinese government has taken steps to address the country’s air pollution crisis, declaring a “war on smog” this year that includes reducing the country’s fleet of coal-fired power plants, removing the dirtiest cars from the road, stepping up enforcement of pollution restrictions, and deploying more clean energy. The country is still heavily reliant on coal, however.
The Chinese government has been enforcing its most stringent air quality control measures since the 2008 Summer Olympics in a last-ditch effort to clean up Beijing’s air ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, starting Saturday. As world leaders, including President Barack Obama, head to China, Zhang Qingwei, the governor of neighboring industrial province of Hebei, told Reuters “that curbing pollution during the meeting was vital for China’s ‘national image,’ while vice-premier Zhang Gaoli described it as the ‘priority of priorities.'”