Philippine economy

Haze in PH: Which masks can protect you and other things you need to know

Ryan Macasero
Haze in PH: Which masks can protect you and other things you need to know
Not all masks can protect you against haze pollution

CEBU CITY, Philippines – Environmental officials confirmed last week that the haze lingering over the central and southern Philippines was from the man-made forest fires burning in Sumatra and Borneo. While the fires are happening over 2,500 kilometers away, the haze reached the Philippines because of the enormous size of the affected areas, combined with the hanging habagat (southwest monsoon).  

The Central Visayas’ Environmental Management Bureau (EMB-7) is monitoring the higher levels of PM2.5 particulates in the atmosphere, which are dangerous to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems because of its finer size. 

If one has to go outside during “peak hours,” or times when PM2.5 particulates are abnormally high, the EMB-7 advised residents – especially those who suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses – to use protective masks to guard against inhaling these fine dust. Peak hours are between 5 to 10 am, and between 4 to 9 pm. (READIndonesia haze: Cebu residents urged to stay indoors or wear masks during peak hours)

What are the health risks? According to the Department of Health (DOH), short-term exposure to these particles by vulnerable individuals can worsen existing lung conditions. Examples are: causing asthma attacks, acute bronchitis, and heart conditions (READ: IN PHOTOS: Indonesia forest fire haze reaches the Philippines)

Exposure to higher levels of PM2.5 particulates can also trigger cough, nasal congestion, sore throat, conjunctivitis, headache, dizziness, fatigue, skin irritation, eczema, and mild irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and patients with existing lung and heart conditions are most vulnerable.

Other persons may experience only minor effects from short-term particulate exposure like irritations of the eye, nose, and throat.

Those experiencing difficult breathing or painful irritation during times when particulates are high are advised to see their physicians immediately.

How to protect yourself. Since avoiding outdoors is unrealistic, wearing masks are the next best way to protect against inhalation of smoke and other fine pollutants in the haze from the forest fires. 

But not every mask is enough protect your lungs from pollutants. Surgical masks in particular offer little or no protection against particulate and smoke inhlation.

Why are surgical masks not advised? While they are easy to find and affordable, surgical masks expose most of your mouth and nose on the sides to pollution.

Michael Brauer a professor of population and public health at the University of British Columbia told Canada’s Global News that  surgical masks give a false sense of security.

He said, “so you wear a mask and you actually end up exposing yourself to more pollution than you would otherwise.” 

What is an N95 mask? N95 is a rating by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of protective masks which means that the mask protects against 95% of airborne particles but not resistant to oil fumes. It is also the easiest respirator mask to find in the Philippines.

What other masks work?
The R95 mask is a little bit better and protects against 95% of airborne particles and oil fumes. Any NIOSH rating of “N” and “R” masks between 95 and 100 work.  

Where to buy the masks? They can be found at drug stores such as Mercury Drug and Watsons; or in hardware stores such as Ace Hardware, True Value, or Handyman.

How much do they cost?
The prices vary between stores, but normally cost between P80 and P120 per mask.

How to wear the masks? Make sure to purchase the masks with 2 straps so that it could properly seal your nose and mouth. The upper strap goes over the top of the ear and the second strap should fit below the ear.

Masks may not seal properly for those with facial hair. During times when masks are advised, it is best to shave to fully protect against inhaling harmful pollution.

Do masks expire? If there is no expiration date on the packaging, experts advise people to change to a new mask when it becomes visibly worn out or already already difficult to breathe.  

Do bandanas, scarves or handkerchiefs work? They don’t.

But if R95s or N95s are unavailable, wet damp handkerchiefs may work in the meantime, according to Cindylyn Ochea, EMB-7 chief of the ambient air and water quality monitoring section.

Is it okay to exercise outside? In times of unhealthy levels of pollution, people are advised not to exercise outdoors.

According to the Mayo Clinic, doing aerobic activity when pollution is high increases risk because the air you inhale is breathed more deeply into the lungs. And because you more likely breathe through the mouth during exercse, the air bypasses the nasal passages which filter airborne pollution particles.  

Exercise caution while driving. While haze has not affected ground visibility in the Philippines, EMB-7 urges motorists to frequently check if their headlights are working properly and to follow minimum speed levels. 

Follow health advisories. Aside from following local news, those living in areas affected by the haze should follow their regional EMB and DOH Facebook page for air quality and health advisories.  


The EMB does not know when the haze would completely leave the area and would keep monitoring air quality until then. 


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Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers social welfare for Rappler. He started at Rappler as social media producer in 2013, and later took on various roles for the company: editor for the #BalikBayan section, correspondent in Cebu, and general assignments reporter in the Visayas region. He graduated from California State University, East Bay, with a degree in international studies and a minor in political science. Outside of work, Ryan performs spoken word poetry and loves attending local music gigs. Follow him on Twitter @ryanmacasero or drop him leads for stories at