Earlier this year, the Chinese government issued its first-ever quality standards for the protective face masks commonly worn by urban-dwellers during periods of heavy pollution. Conspicuously absent from the new guidelines, which went into effect on Nov. 1, are smaller masks for children.
With the start of compulsory central heating in China’s northern cities every year come the inevitable veil of power plant-produced haze and the accompanying boom in face mask sales. In April, two government agencies — the Standardization Administration and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine — collaborated to produce health and safety benchmarks for the ubiquitous facial accessories.
Though smaller masks are sought-after commodities in major cities like Beijing, the new standards did not give any criteria for masks intended especially for children. Industry experts who contributed to the guidelines cited a number of reasons for the omission, including a wide range in face sizes among the younger demographic and legislation that bars children from participating in health and safety tests.
Wu Feng, a WeMedia content creator and a vocal advocate of protective face masks for children, told state newspaper Legal Daily that there are three key criteria to daily-use face masks: filtration ratio, leakage rate, and breathability. “Mask manufacturers brag about good filtration but rarely mention leakage, which is inevitable if the masks don’t fit well,” Wu said.
Despite concerns from parents, Zheng Yuming, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Urban Development and an author of the guidelines, assured the public that “We will take kid-sized masks into consideration next time.”
Zhao Jinyu, a textile engineer who also collaborated on the quality standards, told party-affiliated newspaper Beijing Youth Daily that in-depth research is already underway in developing safety criteria for children’s masks. “The trouble,” Zhao said, “is that we don’t have complete data for kids or a dedicated system for tracking such data.”
Though the lack of regulation does not mean that all children’s masks are ineffective, consumers now face a daunting range of options without essential information to guide them. On Alibaba-owned website Taobao, China’s largest online marketplace, protective face masks sell for anywhere from $1 to over $400.
“Many factories that were losing money making clothes have switched to face masks instead, but their products are not compliant with health standards,” said Zhao, who added that over 50 percent of face masks examined by quality controllers this year failed inspection.
With consumer confidence in domestically made masks low and sales of Japanese and South Korean imports high, many Chinese parents seem to have become resigned to pollution as a fact of urban life. Xu Chenchen, a manager at logistics company Sinotrans Limited in Beijing, told Sixth Tone that her 2-year-old daughter hasn’t got used to wearing masks, so instead she stays home on smoggy days. “Regardless of how effective the masks are, I don’t think it’s possible to prevent the damaging effects of pollution on children,” she said.
Huang Nan, a communications manager who lives in Shanghai with her two little boys, said that though the market will suffer without quality standards for children’s masks, she doesn’t care about the issue as much as other parents do. “If you don’t have a choice, you just learn to live with it,” she said.
In the absence of government safety standards for children’s masks, China’s social media users have proffered a variety of tongue-in-cheek solutions. “Move,” wrote one Weibo microblogger, “unless you have masks big enough to cover the chimneys of steel mills and power plants.”
Additional reporting by Lu Hongyong.
(Header image: A little girl and her mother wear masks to protect against pollution as they leave the hospital on a smoggy day in Beijing, Dec. 8, 2015. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/VCG)