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China pollution

What goes into our lungs when we breathe in China’s severe smog?

Researcher examines fine particles on face mask left in northern China’s polluted air

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 11:36am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 11:30pm

What do we breathe into our lungs when we take a breath of smog?

With residents across northern China battling severe smog in recent weeks, a Beijing-based professor decided to take a closer look at what people have been facing.

Liu Yong examined smog particles collected on facial mask filters during the recent periods of severe air pollution and then photographed them under a microscope that enlarged the images by up to 2,000 times.

Smog levels in Beijing off the charts

He said he wanted to use the images of the smog particles to raise public awareness about the dangers caused by smog.

“It’s only when people are fully aware of the dangers of smog that we can push the government to do more to improve the air quality,” Liu said.

Liu, who works at a nanocomposite research laboratory at Beijing University of Chemical Technology,

used seven to eight different facial masks for his research.

The Chinese-made brand of face marks, Maixingren, which was chosen for the research, were worn by one of the team of researchers on 10 different days when the level of air pollution was severe.

Heavy smog continues to choke China’s heartland

The masks were exposed to the smog for about seven to eight hours in total, with the final mask worn on Tuesday morning.

Watch: Beijing smog halts children’s playground

“When the smog levels are severe, like they are today [Wednesday] and yesterday, a mask needs to be worn for only a short time in order to collect the samples,” Liu said.

It was clearly visible when looking at the filter exposed to the smog particles that it had become darkened compared with a new filter, China News reported.

The visible dry particles contained traces of chemical elements including calcium carbonate, iron oxide and sulphate. Some forms of pollution would require other methods in order to be seen.

An examination like Liu’s could help to determine the origin of the smog on a mask and trace it back, for example, to the burning of coal at a factory.

Liu said he agreed with research carried out at Britain’s Lancaster University, which confirmed that the fine particles found in smog could penetrate people’s lungs or be circulated in the blood and end up inside organs, such as the brain.

Drone footage showing extent of smog-stricken Beijing’s traffic jams leaves viewers gasping

“The smaller the particles are, the easier it is for them to access human organs.” Liu said. “We don’t know exactly how much damage the smog could cause. It may not show up instantly, but will remain within your system on a long-term basis.”

An increase in the number of lung-cancer patients in China could also be attributed to the severe smog conditions, Liu said.

The research carried out at Liu’s laboratory involves anti-pollution systems that use nanomaterials – things with very tiny dimensions.

He said proper use of nanomaterials in face-mask filters could help protect wearers against up to 99 per cent of PM2.5, the particle matter found in smog that is smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter and can cause the greatest harm to public health.

Chinese cruise ship ‘stuck at sea for two days in smog’

Unfortunately, nanomaterials have not been widely used in face mask products and only about 20 per cent of facial masks use this kind of technology, he said.

An orange alert – the second highest in the four-tier air quality system – is now in force in Beijing as it tackles another round of severe air pollution, which will reportedly last until the weekend.

The Beijing Evening News reported that a large cruise ship carrying more than 2,000 passengers was stuck at sea for two days because it was unable to dock at its home port of Tianjin because of the heavy smog after a trip to South Korea and Japan.

It eventually returned to Tianjin on Monday afternoon, which led to the next cruise being cancelled.