The season of cherry blossoms is approaching in South Korea, but it is hard to think about the loveliness of the short-lived white petals when the sky is gray, when the air is gritty, when the government sends loud, emergency text messages urging citizens not to go outdoors and when many are so concerned about the air pollution they fear to open their windows.

Graph comparing the relative popularity of the search words, ‘cherry blossoms’ (green) and ‘fine dust’ (pink), from February 14 to March 14. (Source: Naver Trend)

Seoul has been engulfed in what looks like a heavy fog – a fog of pollution. Multiple compounds contribute to South Korea’s hazardous air pollution, including greenhouse gases, which rose at the second-highest rate among OECD countries from 2003 to 2013, and South Korea’s air quality was one of the worst among OECD member states in 2018.

It is PM2.5 – tiny particles that are 2.5 micrometers or less in width and more colloquially known as “fine dust” – that are seen as among the most dangerous pollutants, causing various respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Levels of PM2.5 hit record highs in various parts of the country for six consecutive days in early March.

As of 2017, the country’s average yearly exposure to PM2.5 was more than double the OECD average of 12.5 micrograms per cubic meter. The World Health Organization advises being exposed to less than 10 micrograms annually.

It is a grim situation. But for some, there is an upside.

Breathing life into business

For businesses like Kim Hee-sung’s, hideous pollution spells golden opportunity. Miima, which sells elegant, reusable face masks with replaceable filters, is a newcomer in the increasingly profitable market for anti-air pollution products.

When Miima launched last November, it sold about 3,000 face masks in one month. Come early March – as clouds of fine dust settled over the peninsula – the company sold more than 30,000 in less than three days.

“We are in a hectic daze,” Kim said. “All the employees have been staying up all night for nearly two weeks straight. We have never had this many orders come in at once.”

This sudden surge in business is not unique to Kim’s company. Dongkook Pharmaceutical, a giant in the mask industry, told Asia Times that in the first two months of 2019, its sales of protective face masks reached nearly two billion won (US$1.76 million), surpassing Dongkook’s mask sales in the entire year of 2018.

Style up! ‘Style masks’ for sale in Seoul. Photo: Haeryun Kang

It’s not ony face masks. Air purifiers, nasal sprays, even “anti-pollution cosmetics,” are being sold in unprecedented numbers. There is no overarching statistics on different anti-air pollution products – the government does not collect them, either – but scattered information on individual sales are astounding.

For example, hypermarket chain Emart, South Korea’s largest retailer, told Asia Times that its air purifier sales rose by almost 1,400% between February 20 and March 3 this year, compared with the same period two years ago.

“I have a four-year-old daughter and she can’t go outside,” said Kim. “Frankly, I have very mixed feelings about how well my business is doing. It would be much better if this country was cleaner – even if that meant I make less money doing something else.”

In desperation, people have turned to short-term protective measures, like wearing face masks. The market is becoming increasingly competitive: more than 500 different mask products are registered under the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, with the “Korea Filter (KF)” certification.

This does not include masks like Kim’s Miima, whose filter has been separately tested as 99% efficient by Nelson Laboratories, a global testing lab based in the US and Belgium.

Most of the cheaper masks, which cost about 3,000 won ($2.64) and up, are plain white and not reusable. However, there are plenty of stylish, expensive options. High-end brands offer fashionable, KF-certified masks, with replaceable filters, that are as expensive as 350,000 won ($307.54).

Under a YouTube video by lifestyle platform The Edit, titled “We Tried the Chanels of the Mask World,” a commenter said: “We now live in a world where it costs money to breathe.”

Health experts assure the public that KF-certified masks are safe to use. For example, a “KF80” mask means it is more than 80% effective in blocking fine particulate matter as small as 0.6 micrometers in width. “KF94” and “KF99” can block particulate matter as small as 0.4 micrometers, with respective success rates of more than 94% and 99%.

Proposals, solutions

“The problem is, the story isn’t over after buying a good mask,” said Myong Jun-pyo, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the Catholic University of Korea’s College of Medicine. “It’s also about how to wear them the right way. People often use masks inappropriately, reducing their effectiveness.”

Myong, who is also a researcher on protective face masks, advised consumers to fit the mask as tightly as possible, “enough to create markings on your face,” focusing especially on the bridge of the nose – and areas where air can seep in easily. “Don’t exercise wearing your masks, since the filters wear out easily,” the expert warned. “Don’t try to reuse non-reusable masks by washing them.

“Face masks are our first and final resort,” Myong said. “They’re not fundamental solutions.”

South Koreans are masking up before venturing outdoors. Photo: Hae-ryun Kang

The government is seeking solutions, but they are evasive.

A high-profile measure to seed the skies over the Yellow Sea with artificial rain this month failed. Last Wednesday, lawmakers passed a series of bills to tackle air pollution, defining fine dust as a source of “social disaster” and giving government officials access to an emergency fund of 3 trillion won ($2.65 billion) for different measures, including the mandatory installation of air purifiers in classrooms.

Local governments are also getting in on the act. Within and around Seoul, where half of South Korea’s 51 million people live, measures have been introduced to limit vehicle use, the use of coal-fired power stations and more. But the air pollution shows no signs of getting better, which means anti-air pollution businesses will most likely keep growing.

Moreover, air pollution is not merely a domestic issue, it is also creating friction with China. Different authorities say China is responsible, though they differ over to what degree. A Seoul city-run agency blamed China for South Korea’s air pollution in February – a claim China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang rebuked.

Meanwhile, for citizens, the fear and frustration continues. “Yes, our fine dust masks are selling well,” Kim said. “But I also want my country to get better. Money isn’t everything.”