Growing up in the 1990s, a great many number of Indians will remember Captain Planet, an animated television show about a superhero who tries to save the Earth from pollution. Right now, the citizens of Delhi are in dire need of such a hero. India’s capital is facing a crisis when it comes to air pollution. In 2014, the World Health Organisation declared Delhi to be the most polluted city on the planet. According to Plume Labs, over the past year, Delhi was twice as polluted as Beijing, itself a notoriously polluted city. In May, the New York Times published a piece that wondered if it was “unethical” to ask foreigners to live and work in a city as unhealthy as Delhi. For Delhi’s permanent citizens though, the choices are starker: one study shows that nearly half of Delhi’s school children suffer from permanent lung damage while around 10,000 people will die prematurely from air pollution in the city.

Given the scale of the problem, Delhi has been forced to act. In 2001, the Supreme Court directed the city’s bus fleet to switch to the cleaner compressed natural gas from diesel and in 2015 the Delhi High Court passed the same order for taxis running in the city. Delhi's amazing and increasingly wide metro network has also brought down pollution, with many citizens foregoing their cars for a traffic-free train ride. On Friday, the Aam Aadmi Party state government announced the most radical plan yet to combat pollution: a system of road space rationing which would only allow cars with odd and even number plates to run on alternate days.

Apathetic citizenry

What has been completely missing though, is any sort of response from the citizenry itself. For a people living in the world’s most polluted city, Delhiities are rather blithe about the poison they’re breathing in. In comparison, city dwellers from East Asia ­– where pollution levels are high but not as dire as Delhi – have taken in large numbers to a personal method of pollution control: face masks.

Anti-pollution masks are a rage across East Asia, which also faces debilitating air pollution (although numbers are still drastically less than India). Japan spends $230 million in masks per year and the practice is widespread across China and Korea as well.

So widespread is the practice of wearing masks that in China, like any other article of clothing, masks have launched their own fashions and styles. Masks in the region are available in a wide variety of colours and patterns. They even featured in the China Fashion week last year, designers accessorising their collections with anti-pollution masks.

The correct mask

In spite of this awareness though, a large number of East Asian mask wearers do not really end up protecting themselves from the worst sort of pollution because they chose to wear lightweight cotton masks, resembling surgical masks. Even the United States Embassy in Beijing has warned against the use of these masks
Paper "comfort" or "dust" masks are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust.  These masks will not protect your lungs from small particles such as PM2.5.  Scarves or bandanas won’t help either.

To work, therefore, masks need to be fitted with filters which can stop the smallest particles which cause the most damage. In Delhi, for example pollutants smaller than 2.5 microns (one thousandth of a millimeter) dominate and can cause serious lung damage.

Rarity in Delhi

Of course, in spite of that, any sort of anti-pollution mask in Delhi is a rarity. The primary reason is a lack of awareness of the effects of pollutions as well as the existence of ways to combat it. “People are not even conscious of the fact that there is an air pollution problem in India or that their health is suffering grievously because of it,” said Jai Dhar Gupta, India Director of Vogmask, one of the few anti-pollution mask brands available in India.

Then there are the inconveniences of wearing a mask as well. They are either seen to be unfashionable or inconvenient. Nitin Jain a regular cyclist in Delhi knows how dire the pollution situation is in the city but still doesn’t wear a mask because for him it “takes away from the joy of riding”.

Nevertheless, there are a few people taking to the mask given just how bad the situation is in Delhi. Chris Carlisle, a British citizen, found himself coughing and wheezing whenever he did any sort of exercise after moving to Delhi. “I was unable to exercise for a couple of days after, it was so bad,” he said. “So that’s when I started to wear masks that I’d bought from outside India. The situation in Delhi when it comes to pollution is dire and I’m surprised more people aren’t wearing masks to protect themselves”.