SEOUL, South Korea -- U.S. Forces Korea has changed its policy to allow soldiers to wear black filtering masks while in uniform as protection against poor air quality in South Korea.
Army regulations had barred soldiers from wearing the masks, which cover noses and mouths, in uniform unless they had a certified medical condition that merited an exception. By contrast, the Air Force permitted masks when pollution hit a certain level.
The new policy, posted Monday, says all servicemembers may wear approved masks while outdoors in uniform when the air-quality index is reported as orange or higher, referring to a color scheme showing pollution levels.
The change comes as people in South Korea have endured record levels of fine dust that have smothered the country and prompted rising worries in the military community as soldiers spend a lot of time training and working outdoors.
Stars and Stripes first reported about the concerns early last month.
More than 3,400 people have signed a petition posted on Change.org last month calling for USFK, the main command in South Korea, to allow the use of masks.
New policy welcomed
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jennifer Alexander, who is based at Camp Humphreys and co-signed the petition, said she was "absolutely ecstatic" about the change.
Alexander, who is assigned to the 11th Engineers, 2nd Infantry Division Sustainment Brigade, said she has been suffering from migraines because of the pollution.
"What I really appreciate about the policy is it doesn't leave it up to regular unit commanders or anything. It's a blanket policy," the 34-year-old Chicago native said in an interview.
The problem is heightened in the winter and early spring due primarily to a pollutant known as PM 2.5, fine particulate matter that can clog lungs and cause several health problems. Some 28,500 U.S. servicemembers are stationed on the divided peninsula.
"From 2015-2017, air pollution levels near U.S. bases in (South Korea) exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for poor air quality approximately 100 days each year," according to the policy.
"Military personnel are authorized to wear an approved particulate filtering disposable mask while outdoors in uniform when the AQI is reported as Orange (101-150) or higher for PM," the policy said.
It said masks worn with uniforms must be solid black and have filtration ratings of N-95 or higher, which means they may be effective at blocking up to 95 percent of fine particulates, as determined by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Masks, which must cover mouths and noses but not ears or eyes, certified as KF-94 or higher by the Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety also are authorized, USFK said.
Troops should also modify outdoor activity when the air quality hits dangerous levels, it said, adding that indoor use of the masks was not authorized.
Sara Yassa, an Army wife who goes by the nickname Maria KOka and started the petition, welcomed the change. She said her husband just bought a black air-filtration mask to wear at work, in addition to the one he already had for use when out of uniform.
"He and the other soldiers have been suffering a lot. Some of them actually had to run with inhalers because it was getting really bad for them, and some have asthma," she said, adding she hoped the military would eventually expand the policy.
"I can't wait for soldiers to feel the difference on their health once they start using the masks so they can witness the difference themselves," she said. "Maybe the next step would be making it their choice to wear it anytime they feel the need to."
South Korea has the worst air quality among a group of 35 wealthy nations, according to the most recent data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
USFK also revised its policy two years ago to give commanders at each level more latitude to move training indoors or postpone activities based on air quality. Masks were not allowed at that time and many said that outdoor training and other activities continued regardless of air-quality index levels.
The Air Force, meanwhile, has been more lenient thanks to a policy put in place in June 2017 by the 51st Fighter Wing at Osan Air Base, south of Seoul.
Bases also keep the communities informed with updates on Facebook and internal alert systems.
Air pollution is linked to health problems ranging from eye irritation to upper respiratory symptoms in the short term, and chronic respiratory diseases like asthma in the long term. Children and the elderly are considered particularly vulnerable.
South Korea has long suffered from a phenomenon known locally as "yellow dust," which refers to contaminated fine sand particles that blow from the desert regions of China and Mongolia.
But the South, which has morphed into an economic powerhouse after rapid industrialization following the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War, also generates its own pollution and most of its population of some 25 million lives in urban areas.
"There is a confluence of factors that lead to high levels of particulate matter in Korea," said James Crawford, a NASA scientist who led a joint Korea-U.S. air quality field study in 2016.
"In public discourse, it is often attributed to transport from China without much further thought," he said in an email. "While I do not discount that transport contributes, local emissions also play a bigger role when conditions are cold and ventilation of pollutants is inhibited."