18/07/2018 3 min

"Anti-pollution" masks: not enough data to demonstrate a health benefit and justify recommending their use

In a context where prevention of ambient air pollution is a real public health issue, questions are regularly asked about the value of recommending that the population wear personal protective equipment. This led ANSES to assess the potential health benefits of wearing "anti-pollution" masks. Its expert appraisal revealed a lack of data demonstrating a health benefit. To reduce the health impacts associated with ambient air pollution, the Agency reiterates the importance of prioritising action at the source by limiting pollutant emissions. It also recommends providing better information for the population, particularly susceptible individuals, on the behaviour to be adopted to limit daily exposure to air pollution.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution is currently the main environmental risk to health worldwide. In particular, exposure to air pollution is responsible for the development of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. In this context, ANSES was asked by the Ministries of Health and Labour to assess the potential health benefits of wearing anti-pollution masks, mainly for:

  • the general population, especially those most susceptible to air pollution;
  • certain particularly exposed populations, for example people working on public roads or working abroad in highly polluted areas of the world.

A lack of data demonstrating the health benefits of "anti-pollution" masks

A mask's effectiveness depends on its design, the performance of the filter it is equipped with, and other parameters such as its adaptation to the shape of the user's face. Therefore, even if a mask tested in a laboratory is highly effective, this does not necessarily reflect its effectiveness in real conditions of use by members of the general public. Indeed, its effectiveness will be diminished by a poor facial fit, failure to maintain the mask, a lack of user information and training, intense physical activity, etc. Although these differences can more or less be controlled in the workplace through training in hygiene and safety procedures, this cannot be guaranteed for the general public.

Moreover, most of the "anti-pollution" masks on the French market are designed to protect from particles found in the ambient air and do not provide protection from substances present in gaseous form.

The expert appraisal concluded that there are insufficient data available, particularly regarding actual conditions of use, to demonstrate any health benefits associated with the wearing of "anti-pollution" masks by the general public.

Furthermore, wearing an anti-pollution mask can give the user a false sense of security and lead to behaviour that may result in overexposure to pollutants in the air.

The Agency does not therefore recommend that the public authorities encourage the wearing of such devices.

Limiting exposure to air pollution

ANSES reiterates the importance of prioritising action at the source, by limiting pollutant emissions in order to reduce health impacts. It also recommends improving information for the population and susceptible individuals on the behaviour to be adopted to limit daily exposure.

The Agency further recommends that the public authorities provide specific information on the potential health risks to travellers and expatriates in certain regions of the world where ambient air pollution levels are especially high.

Concerning workers exposed to ambient air pollution, the Agency recommends that the parties involved in prevention take up the issue and include it in their risk assessment processes. It advocates developing awareness-raising and prevention tools for employers, and initiating a discussion on the feasibility and relevance of establishing specific occupational exposure limits for ambient air pollution.

Lastly, devices claiming to provide both respiratory protection against ambient air pollution and comfort must comply with the requirements of the regulations on personal protective equipment (PPE). Noting certain discrepancies, the Agency recommends improving the transparency of the effectiveness claims of products placed on the market, in order to ensure that the devices sold comply with the necessary requirements and that users of this type of protection are duly informed.