I've been wearing an anti-pollution mask around London


Today is Clean Air Day. I'm writing this article because too many of us do not breathe clean air. We suffer health problems and die too soon because we do not breathe clean air. That needs to change.

This is a topic that I've been talking about a lot lately, especially after the World Health Organisation released new data on air pollutionlast month, including stats like:

  • 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air; and
  • Air pollution causes 1 in 9 deaths worldwide.

I was invited be part of a Channel 4 News feature to help raise awareness on how air pollution affects people with cystic fibrosis. You can see my (very short!) clip in this piece on the UK’s most polluted areas.

With all this in mind, I thought that now would be a good time to talk openly about the fact that I’ve been wearing a mask to travel around London.

After considering it for about 6 months, back in February I finally started wearing a pollution mask on a regular basis when travelling around London.

To be honest, I kind of think it’s mental that more people aren’t doing this and I really wish that I had have started sooner.

As I get older, it gets harder and harder to keep my lungs healthy living with cystic fibrosis. If I’d have been wearing an anti-pollution mask to travel on the tube and in the most highly polluted areas of London since I moved here, perhaps I’d have been able to preserve an even higher lung function.

But I hate thinking ‘what if’. And I’m definitely not the type of person to have regrets. I know that I wouldn’t have been ready to wear a mask when I first moved to the city. I didn’t have the level of education that I have now on the issues and the solutions available. And I don’t think that I was comfortable enough in myself and confident enough of my place here to put a barrier between myself, my new neighbours and my toxic new home...

But I’m ready now.

Why did I decide to start wearing a pollution mask around London?

So I’ve had a pollution mask for a while now and I’ve known how bad pollution is for even longer, but until Feburary this year, I hadn’t worn the mask for anything besides:

  • Hospital visits - where there’s a higher risk of cross-infection with other people who have CF or of picking up other infections
  • Plane journeys - who doesn’t get a cold after a flight?
  • When I attempted to take up running in London - with a delightful route along the A1…

So why now?

Firstly, the tube really started to gross me out this winter. One particular evening journey home sticks in my mind, where the guy sitting next to me had a red, puffy nose and a distinct lack of tissues to deal with his cold, and the woman opposite me threw up in her hands.

Yep. I didn’t know how to respond to that either.

So, I held my breath and changed carriages at the next stop.

Next reason: I had a bronchoscopy coming up - a hospital procedure that involves an instrument being fed down into your lungs to look around down there…

Obviously, like any invasive procedure, this doesn’t come without risks. If the procedure caused a lot of inflammation or disrupted any bacteria hiding in my lungs, I’d find myself with a line in my arm, and extended hospital stay and two weeks of IV antibiotics ahead of me. Like most people, I want the risks to be as low as possible. But unlike a lot of people, I was willing to do something about it.

I felt that wearing a mask in the lead up to my appointment would reduce the risk of me inhaling any bacteria from contagious commuters and also, by reducing my exposure to high levels of inflammation-causing pollution (did you know that travelling on the underground exposes you to more than eight times as much air pollution as people who drive?), I might reduce the inflammation in my lungs.

Also, at an event that I recently attended on The Impact of the Environment on Heart and Lung Health with the Imperial College AHSC, I was reminded by some very smart Professors that air pollution is a huge risk factor for disease and also that lung health (like a lot of other stuff…) declines after 25.

I’ve certainly noticed that maintaining high function has not come as easily in the last couple of years, and that’s a bit terrifying when I think too much about it. I need to do all I can to preserve my lung function, so it seems sensible to stop knowingly causing harm in the first instance by protecting myself from the most toxic of London air.


So what did I learn from wearing a pollution mask around London? The good and the not so good...

The first thing I’ve learned: people don’t give a sh*t.

I didn’t catch anyone staring at me for wearing a mask. No one looked at me particularly curiously. No kids screamed or pointed. And, although I was sure that wearing this thing would attract attention, many people that I watched as I walked by them didn’t even look at all.

I sent a photo to a friend the first time I left the house wearing this thing on a normal day, in normal clothes. (As opposed to at a hospital, or when going for a run). I’m pretty sure that I did this for some kind of reassurance that I didn’t look absolutely terrifying. Also, so that I knew that at least one person who saw me looking like that that day would actually understand me, and I wouldn’t feel so isolated (see below point on communication).

My friend said I looked like a superhero with my mask and rucksack. Ready to save the world. I’ll take that.

But just in case I alarmed anyone who thought that I may have been anticipating some kind of chemical attack, I carefully selected reading material for my first masked journey: a book on breathing techniques for athletic performance. I felt there was a link there, somehow. Maybe people would think the mask I was wearing was some kind of training device. Perhaps (even more tenuous link…) they’d think I was an Olympic athlete. That would be great.

Overall though, I felt pretty badass. Not just because I was channeling my inner superhero or wannabe Olympian, but because I made a bloody good decision to take control of my health and make a statement against how utterly grim public transport can be (especially back in Feburary when I had my bronchoscopy)... and I stuck to it without giving a sh*t what other people thought. That’s pretty empowering.

The down side? Well physiologically, there’s an issue. Breathing is not so easy. When I sprinted up the steps at the station two at a time to catch my tube, regaining my breath was not so easy with the mask on.

But what bothered me even more was that the mask is a barrier to communication.

I’m not exactly eager to have a full-on chat with anyone on the tube, but it’s nice to be able to give someone a slight smile if you make eye contact or to apologise if your headphone wires get tangled around their coat button as you squeeze past to get off the tube at your stop…(true story). I became really conscious that no one could see my mouth, to observe a friendly expression or read my apologetic lips as I was barging them out of the way.

I pride myself on being a relatively nice person, so this was difficult. I found myself avoiding looking around in case I caught someone’s eye and was unable to do much besides (apparently) glare at them. But, as much as I believe in cultivating a friendly society, I know that my health has to come first.

Which anti-pollution mask am I using?

I’ve been using a mask from Cambridge Masks and am also trialling a mask from VogMask after meeting their inspirational founder recently.

I have a full review of some masks coming up very shortly, as well as a more in-depth article on everything that I’ve learnt about pollution and what to look for in an anti-pollution mask, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Happy and healthy

I’m really happy with my decision to start wearing an anti-pollution mask in London. After just 3 outings with the mask, it already felt like my new normal and I think it’s something I have kept up long-term. Since wearing this mask, I’ve already seen 7 other people doing similar on public transport. Not a full-on movement just yet, but I’m hopeful.

And if writing this encourages just one person to consider taking an extra step to protect their health, or the confidence to wear a mask knowing that they won’t be judged, I’ll be even happier.