The transactions that created Chemours and reinvented DuPont laid the groundwork for a blame-shifting exercise that has made it difficult for regulators and others to hold anyone accountable for decades of contamination in North Carolina and elsewhere.
State attorneys general in Ohio, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York each sued the companies for having released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil and for concocting a spinoff to shield DuPont from responsibility. Dutch prosecutors began criminally investigating Chemours for the use of PFOA at a factory in Dordrecht from 2008 to 2012, before Chemours was created.
Yet in courts, in the media and in public settings, DuPont and Chemours have used the spinoff to distance themselves from the problems.
In a court filing in Ohio, where the state has sued over pollution from the Washington Works factory on the West Virginia border, Chemours claimed that the contamination happened before “Chemours even came into existence.” In a securities filing this summer, Chemours stated that it “does not, and has never, used” PFOA. Yet Chemours continues to manufacture other versions of PFAS, including GenX.
DuPont adopted a similar stance. Because Chemours was independent and had assumed responsibility for Washington Works, DuPont claimed it had nothing to do with the pollution. In fact, DuPont insisted, because it was technically a new company, it had never even made the toxic substances in question.
In 2019, Chemours, deep in debt, sued DuPont. Chemours contended that the spinoff was conceived to get DuPont off the hook for its decades of pollution. According to the complaint, DuPont executives decided against a $60 million project that would have stopped Fayetteville Works from discharging chemicals into the Cape Fear River. Instead, DuPont executives made a $2 million change, which they abandoned shortly before they announced the Chemours spinoff.
The lawsuit asked, “Why bother spending money to fix the problem, DuPont apparently reasoned, when it could be conveniently passed on to Chemours?”
The presence of PFAS in oil and gas extraction threatens to expose oil-field employees and emergency workers handling fires and spills as well as people who live near, or downstream from, drilling sites to a class of chemicals that has faced increasing scrutiny for its links to cancer, birth defects, and other serious health problems.
A class of man-made chemicals that are toxic even in minuscule concentrations, for decades PFAS were used to make products like nonstick pans, stain-resistant carpeting and firefighting foam. The substances have come under scrutiny in recent years for their tendency to persist in the environment, and to accumulate inside the human body, as well as for their links to health problems like cancer and birth defects. Both Congress and the Biden administration have moved tobetter regulate PFAS, which contaminate the drinking water of as many as 80 million Americans.
Industry researchers have long been aware of their toxicity. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when the environmental attorney Rob Bilott sued Dupont for pollution from its Teflon plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., that the dangers of PFAS started to be widely known.In settlements with the E.P.A. in the mid-2000s, Dupont acknowledged knowing of PFAS’s dangers, and it and several other chemical manufacturers subsequently committed to phase out the use of certain kinds of the chemical by 2015.
Kevin A. Schug, a professor of analytical Chemistry at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the chemicals identified in the FracFocus database fell into the PFAS group of compounds, although he added that there was not enough information to make a direct link between the chemicals in the database to the ones approved by the E.P.A. Still, he said it was clear “that the approved polymer, if and when it breaks down in the environment, will break down into PFAS.”
The findings underscore how, for decades, the nation’s laws governing various chemicals have allowed thousands of substances to go into commercial use with relatively little testing. The E.P.A.’s assessment was carried out under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which authorizes the agency to review and regulate new chemicals before they are manufactured or distributed.
But for years, that law had gaps that left Americans exposed to harmful chemicals, experts say. Furthermore, the Toxic Substances Control Act grandfathered inthousands of chemicals already in commercial use, including many PFAS chemicals. In 2016, Congress strengthened the law, bolstering the E.P.A.’s authority to order health testing, among other measures. The Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, still identifies the Toxic Substances Control Act as a program with one of the highest risks of abuse and mismanagement.
In recent days, whistle-blowers have alleged in the Intercept that the E.P.A. office in charge of reviewing toxic chemicals tampered with the assessments of dozens of chemicals to make them appear safer. E.P.A. scientists evaluating new chemicals “are the last line of defense between harmful — even deadly — chemicals and their introduction into U.S. commerce, and this line of defense is struggling to maintain its integrity,” the whistle-blowers said in their disclosure, which was released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Maryland-based nonprofit group.
China’s economy is on a tear. Factories are humming, and foreign investment is flowing in. Even so, the wealthy and powerful people atop some of the country’s most prominent companies are heading for the exits.
The latest are Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, the husband-and-wife team that runs Soho China, a property developer known for its blobby, futuristic office buildings. In striking a deal this week to sell a controlling stake to the investment giant Blackstone for as much as $3 billion, Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang are turning over the company as high-profile entrepreneurs come under public and official scrutiny in China like never before.
Soho China did not respond to a request for comment.
China’s most famous tycoon, the Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, has kept an uncharacteristically low profile since late last year, when the government began a regulatory crackdown on his companies and the wider internet industry. Colin Huang, founder of the Alibaba rival Pinduoduo, resigned as chairman in March, less than a year after he stepped down as chief executive. In May, Zhang Yiming, founder of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, said he would hand over the chief executive post to focus on long-term strategy.
Under the Communist Party’s top leader, Xi Jinping, nationalism has been resurgent in China, and the government has sought to exert more direct influence over the private sector. Even before this week’s sale, Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang of Soho China had been avoiding the spotlight more than they did during an earlier, freer era of China’s economic revival.
going after businesspeople and intellectuals with big online followings. The police that year arrested Wang Gongquan, a friend of Mr. Pan’s and supporter of human rights causes, on charges of disrupting public order.
Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang began selling off property holdings in China and spending more time in the United States. The family of Ms. Zhang and the Safra family of Brazil, long involved in international banking, teamed up to buy a 40 percent stake in the General Motors building in Manhattan.
They noted that the couple donated generously to Harvard and Yale but not to Chinese universities.
After media reports accused Soho China of “fleeing” Shanghai by selling projects there, Mr. Pan wrote on Weibo: “Buying and selling is normal. Don’t read too much into it.”
The company’s last big public event was the opening of Leeza Soho, a lithe, spiraling skyscraper in Beijing, in late 2019. Zaha Hadid, the famed architect who designed the tower and a friend of Ms. Zhang’s, had died a few years earlier.
Last year, Ren Zhiqiang, a retired property mogul and friend of Mr. Pan’s, was detained for an essay he shared with friends on a private chat group. The essay criticized Mr. Xi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the direction he was taking the country. Mr. Ren was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Today, Mr. Pan’s and Ms. Zhang’s Weibo accounts are filled with bland, friendly material: holiday greetings, book recommendations, photos of flowers in bloom outside Soho China buildings. Both of their accounts are set to display only the past half year’s posts.
On Wednesday night, minutes after Soho China announced the sale on its official Weibo account, Mr. Pan reposted the announcement without comment, in what online commentators called a “silent farewell.”
Australians were among those lucky enough to see it on Wednesday evening, a rare astronomical event marked by a dazzling array of sunset colors like red and burnt orange: a “super blood moon.”
From Brazil to Alaska, California to Indonesia, people with the right view of the celestial phenomenon marveled as their moon, usually a predictable, pale, Swiss-cheese-like round in the sky, was transformed into a fierce, red giant. As one Twitter user, words failing, put it: “Man I’m in love with this urghhh.”
The striking display was the result of two simultaneous phenomena: a supermoon (when the moon lines up closer than normal to our planet and appears to be bigger than usual), combined with a total lunar eclipse, or blood moon (when the moon sits directly in the Earth’s shadow and is struck by light filtered through the Earth’s atmosphere).
“A little bit of sunlight skims the Earth’s atmosphere,” said Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist and cosmologist based at the Australian National University in Canberra, the country’s capital. He said this creates the effect of “sunrise and sunset being projected onto the moon.”
on a special flight to see the supermoon. It left Sydney about 7:45 p.m. and was to return later that evening. Vanessa Moss, an astronomer with Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, and the guest expert on the flight, said this kind of phenomenon was exciting because it was accessible.
“You don’t need a telescope; you don’t need binoculars,” she said, adding that it was a good chance to “look up at the sky and think about our place in the universe.”
studied humanity’s relationship with space, wrote in an email.
“We wonder whether the red moon is a sign of the end of disruption and suffering, or another beginning,” he said, adding that the moon provides one of the constants in our lives. “When that’s disrupted, we temporarily lose our moorings, and for a moment we’re jostled from the world we take for granted.”
Australians will have some of the best views of the “super blood moon” this week, but passengers on a one-time flight departing from Sydney will have an even better one.
The Australian airline Qantas will operate a three-hour flight on Wednesday (Tuesday evening in the United States) for about 100 passengers to see the moon enter the Earth’s shadow and turn a blood red color during a total lunar eclipse.
An astronomer from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science and research agency, worked with the flight’s pilots to “design the optimal flight path,” a statement from the airline said. The astronomer, Vanessa Moss, will also be aboard the plane to educate passengers on the lunar event.
The flight will climb to a cruising altitude of 43,000 feet, “above any potential cloud cover and atmosphere pollution,” the statement said — the maximum altitude for the plane, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. “Cosmic cocktails and supermoon cakes” will be served.
sold out in less than half an hour.
The flight will depart from and return to Sydney Airport, beginning with a scenic route over Sydney Harbour. Australia’s travel restrictions have been among the world’s harshest, with the government largely prohibiting international travel into or out of the country, even for its own citizens.
Other “flights to nowhere” have departed throughout the pandemic as airlines scrambled to manage the sharp decline in travel. In October, a Qantas flight flew over Australia’s Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales, departing from and landing in Sydney. Tickets for the flight sold out in 10 minutes.
Climate activists have criticized the flights as unnecessary and harmful to the environment. Qantas noted that it would offset carbon emissions for its supermoon flight to a net zero.
For those who won’t be on the supermoon flight, the lunar event will be visible mostly from Australia, East Asia, islands in the Pacific and the Western Americas.
The moon will be closest to Earth at 11:50 a.m. Australian Eastern Standard Time, but on the West Coast of the United States, the views will start at 1:47 a.m. Pacific time on Wednesday.
KIRUNA, Sweden — The path to the reindeer herder’s spring home took him across four frozen lakes and countless snowy hilltops. Arriving to a light dusting of snow, the herder, Aslak Allas, switched off his snowmobile, and the overwhelming silence of Sweden’s Arctic settled in.
His reindeer, thousands of them, were nowhere to be seen. “They are very scared of noise,” Mr. Allas, explained, pointing to his vehicle.
He then motioned toward the distant hills dotted with birch trees, their buds swelling with the warming spring sun. “Now, the noise coming from there, that will be something else,” Mr. Allas sighed.
SpaceX. He and several competitors are planning to send up to 50,000 such satellites into space in coming years, compared with fewer than 3,000 out there now.
While the United States, China, Russia and several other countries already have spaceports, Sweden’s would be the first orbital launch site for satellites in Europe — capable of launching spacecraft into orbit around Earth or on interplanetary trajectories. Currently, the intergovernmental European Space Agency launches its traditional single-use Ariane rockets from French Guiana.
Several private European companies are designing spaceports in Europe to host a new generation of smaller rockets. Portugal is looking into building one on the Azores Islands, two remote sites have been allocated in Britain and Norway is upgrading its Andoya Space Center.
Esrange Space Center will be a testing ground for Europe’s first reusable vertical rocket in 2022, and it can conduct engine tests as well.
Swedish Space Corporation, which manages the site, is offering launch services to private ventures wishing to send satellites into space.
“We are a bit of a unicorn in the space business,” said Philip Pahlsson, vice president for strategy and innovation of the Swedish Space Corporation, referring to the government ownership of the site. “But we do plan on being the awesomest company in the government’s portfolio.”
being moved, as the city is slowly sinking into the excavated caverns below.
A 50-foot rocket stands at one of the main intersections, a testament to Sweden’s space ambitions. Space is woven into the fabric of the city.
The Swedish Institute of Space Physics is based in Kiruna, as is the Space High School for gifted teenagers. The space engineering program at Lulea University of Technology, also in Kiruna, attracts Ph.D. students from across Europe. An enormous satellite receiver dish, sticking out from the woods in a vast white valley, serves as a geographical landmark.
Esrange has many of the attributes of other space ports —high fences and warning signs, andsome used rockets on display. But it also has a church, a visitor center and the Aurora hotel, named for the northern lights that color the winter skies. Snow is everywhere, of course, and reindeer roam the terrain (no one knows how they get past the fences), but astronauts and moon landers are nowhere to be found.
Themis, after an ancient Greek Titaness who was the personification of divine order.
On this day, the main activity consisted of engine testing by two fiercely competitive German space start-ups, Rocket Factory Augsburg and ISAR Aerospace Technologies.
the fastest pod in Elon Musk’s competition for ultra-high-speed transport in hyperloop, or travel in a vacuum tube. That caught the attention of Bulent Altan, a former vice president at Space X, who decided to back Mr. Fleischmann and his friends.
Sami are the last Indigenous people of Europe and live in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia.
In 2019, after an appeal by his district, Mr. Allas managed to block some of the expansion plans for the base, and now his sights are set on the coming noise pollution.
“They might say we need to launch or else we lose our customers, but reindeer herding has been around here long as you can imagine,” Mr. Allas said, adding that a legal battle seemed inevitable. “For us, the Space Corporation is the oldest intruder of our lands, but we have much older rights.”
Ford Motor is about to open a major new front in the battle to dominate the fast-growing electric vehicle market, and it’s banking on one of the world’s most powerful business franchises.
In a splashy presentation Wednesday night at a Ford plant in Dearborn, Mich., the automaker will unveil an electric version of its popular F-150 pickup truck, which will be called the Lightning. Ford’s F-Series trucks, including the F-150, make up the top-selling vehicle line in the United States, and typically generate about $42 billion a year in revenue, according to a study commissioned by Ford — or more than twice what McDonald’s brought in last year.
It is one of the most anticipated introductions of a new car and invites comparisons to Ford’s Model T, the car that made automobiles affordable to the masses. Ford has a lot at stake in the new vehicle’s success. If it can turn the F-150 Lightning into a big seller, it could accelerate the move toward electric vehicles, which scholars say is critical for the world to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Tailpipe pollution from cars and trucks represents the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and one of the largest in the world. But if the Lightning does not sell well, it could suggest that the transition to E.V.s will be a lot slower than President Biden and other world leaders need to achieve climate goals.
auto industry’s E.V. push, which has been aimed at niche markets so far. Tesla has grown rapidly for the last several years by selling flashy sports cars to the affluent and early adopters. It sold close to 500,000 cars globally last year, a little more than half as many F-Series trucks Ford sold. Other electric models that have sold well have been small cars, such as the Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan Leaf, that appeal to environmentally minded consumers.
The F-150 Lightning, in contrast, is aimed at small businesses and corporate customers such as building contractors and mining and construction companies that buy lots of rugged pickups. These buyers typically care not just about the sticker price of a truck but also how much it costs to operate and maintain. Electric vehicles tend to cost more to buy but less to own than conventional cars and trucks because they have fewer parts and electricity is cheaper than gasoline or diesel on a per mile basis.
“There are a lot of big fleets who have been looking for green solutions but haven’t had any answers until now,” William C. Ford Jr., the company’s chairman and a great-grandson of Henry Ford, said in an interview.
General Motors and start-ups like Rivian are also working on electric pickups. Rivian has said it will start delivering its truck, the R1T, this summer and G.M. is expected to sell the GMC Hummer pickup truck later this year.
many people will buy them. Beyond commercial buyers, trucks like the F-150, Chevrolet Silverado and the Ram tend to be bought by people who have a lot of stuff to haul or by people — usually men — who like driving trucks.
“There will probably be some initial raised eyebrows, but once we get people to experience the driving dynamics and the extra room, the skepticism will abate,” Mr. Ford said.
The F-Series trucks have been the top-selling model line in the United States for the last 44 years. A 2020 study by the Boston Consulting Group found the truck supports 500,000 jobs at Ford, parts suppliers and dealerships.
Ford’s introduction of the Lightning got a major boost from Mr. Biden, who on Tuesday visited the company’s Rouge Electric Vehicle Center where the pickup will be made. Before a pool of White House reporters gathered at the plant, Mr. Biden pulled up behind the wheel of a prototype covered in black-and-white camouflage sheeting used to conceal the shape of the truck ahead of the Wednesday event.
“This sucker’s quick,” Mr. Biden said, and let slip that the truck can zoom to 60 miles an hour in 4.4 seconds, a detail that wasn’t supposed to be released until Wednesday. Mr. Biden then zoomed off, reaching a top speed of 80 m.p.h.
The Secret Service normally does not allow presidents to drive. Ford officials were not sure Mr. Biden would drive the truck until he arrived at the Rouge center, but it’s not a surprise he did.
Mr. Biden is a well known car enthusiast and owns a green 1967 Corvette that was given to him by his father as a wedding present. In 2016, he and his Corvette appeared on an episode of “Jay Leno’s Garage,” in which he drove the car at an enclosed Secret Service training facility.
with union labor closely aligns with the Biden administration’s goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions, increase domestic manufacturing, support unions and accelerate the transition to electric vehicles.
The administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal includes money to help build half a million charging stations and incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles.
Ford has said it plans on spending $22 billion to develop electric vehicles over a five-year period ending in 2025.
Other automakers are moving in the same direction. G.M. is spending a similar sum and has said it aims to produce only electric vehicles by 2035, setting a target date for phasing out the internal combustion engine, which has powered the auto industry for more than a century.
G.M. recently introduced an updated version of its electric car, the Chevrolet Bolt. It also plans to make an electric version of its popular Silverado pickup truck, which is one of the biggest competitors to the F-150.
Five years ago, a scan of Istu Prayogi’s lungs showed the kind of damage that comes from smoking cigarettes. But in his case, he had never smoked. Instead, he spent hours a day in traffic in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia and one of the world’s most polluted cities.
A computer science teacher, Mr. Istu began wearing a face mask, as his doctor recommended, but that was only a short-term solution. So he joined a rare citizen lawsuit against the government seeking to force Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, and other government officials to address the city’s pervasive pollution.
“For me personally, it’s very urgent,” he said, “because everyone needs air and everyone needs health.”
A three-judge panel is expected to rule as early as this week whether the president, three of his cabinet ministers and three provincial governors have been negligent by failing to curb the city’s air pollution.
prone to flooding.
The environmentalists who brought the suit say that many of the worst sources of pollution are outside Jakarta’s city limits and that presidential leadership and regional efforts are essential to address the problem.
A month after the lawsuit was filed, President Joko proposed moving the capital to a new city to be built on the island of Borneo, leaving Jakarta’s pollution problems behind.
A study released last week by the British consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft found that Jakarta was the city most at risk from environmental factors out of the 576 cities analyzed. The study noted that Jakarta is “plagued with dire air pollution” and faces threats from seismic activity and flooding.
One of the 32 plaintiffs in the suit is Yuyun Ismawati, a co-founder of the environmental group, Nexus3 Foundation, and a recipient of the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize. She points out that Indonesia’s air pollution standards are much looser than the levels recommended by the World Health Organization. But even these standards are not adequately enforced, she said, and as a result, many people suffer from asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Children are especially vulnerable to ailments caused by pollution because their bodies are still developing, she said. “I am worried about the future of young people in Indonesia.”
Research indicates that long-term exposure to air pollution can worsen the effects of Covid-19. Indonesia, the world’s fourth-largest country, has reported more than 1.7 million cases, the largest number in Southeast Asia.
Studies show that vehicle emissions are the largest single source of air pollution in Greater Jakarta, followed by coal-fired power plants. Vehicle inspections, to the extent they occur, are inadequate, Ms. Yuyun said, and the power plants do not have adequate filters.
Another major source is small-scale industrial activity that often relies on primitive methods that lack environmental safeguards, such as melting and recycling lead batteries, and burning wood, plastic or tires to generate heat. These often go unregulated.
“Everyone has the right to live in a healthy environment,” Ms. Yuyun said.
The suit, which was filed in Central Jakarta District Court, names the president, the ministries of health, environment and home affairs and the governors of the three provinces, Jakarta, West Java and Banten.
In a brief submitted in support of the lawsuit, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David R. Boyd, pointed out that air pollution is the world’s deadliest environmental problem and is responsible for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths annually in Indonesia.
These deaths occur even though the solutions are well known and the government has a responsibility to implement them, he said.
“Protecting human rights from the harmful effects of air pollution is a constitutional and legislative obligation for governments in Indonesia, not an option,” he wrote.
Aditho Harinugroho, 36, began riding his bike on Jakarta’s crowded streets after a friend’s sudden death four years ago prompted him to change his lifestyle and embrace fitness. A freelance videographer, he sometimes rides 40 miles in a day.
Now, he is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Even though he wears a cloth mask for the pollution, getting stuck in traffic can lead to coughing fits, he said. And after riding, his skin is blackened by the soot in the air.
“When I pass through a traffic jam hot spot, I definitely cough after that,” Mr. Aditho said. “When I wipe my face, it is black and I imagine that’s what gets into my lungs. It is impossible not to cough.”
President Joko has made Indonesia’s economic development his top priority. But Mr. Aditho said the government is focused on helping the rich, not improving the lives of ordinary people.
“Our government doesn’t care at all about pollution or the air quality of Jakarta,” he said. “We can see that from their policies.”
Dera Menra Sijabat contributed reporting from Jakarta.
The main employers lobby, the Movement of the Enterprises of France, or Medef, which represents France’s biggest corporations, went through the citizens’ group’s proposals line by line, highlighting those considered to be the harshest and recommending softened versions of the text, according to the Journal du Dimanche, a weekly newspaper.
Medef was especially opposed to making “ecocide,” — defined as deliberate and lasting pollution — a crime. Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, Medef’s president, told a Senate panel that his members worried that it would stigmatize business and penalize economic activity. He said lawmakers, not random citizens, should write laws.
Tougher rules could also hobble companies weakened by the pandemic, François Asselin, president of the Confederation of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, told the panel. “So be careful not to bring them to their knees with too-restrictive measures,” he said.
BASF, a German multinational chemical company and a major producer of pesticides with operations in France, was more blunt. In a post on its website, it singled out recommendations by the citizens panel to reduce pesticides and fertilizer in agriculture, saying they “reflect a profound ignorance of reality.”
“In seeking to re-energize democracy,” BASF added, referring to the citizens’ proposals, “aren’t we running the risk of weakening our democratic institutions and fueling populism?”
The criticism may be having an impact. In the legislation passed by the National Assembly, “ecocide” was changed from being labeled a crime, as proposed by the citizens’ panel, to a civil offense. It could still result in jail time.
The proposal to ban short-haul flights originally barred trips that could be covered by a four-hour train trip. After airlines and airports objected, the rule was scaled back to cover only flights that could be replaced by a rail trip of 2.5 hours — a change that barred only eight routes. A measure that would have made it more difficult pave over empty fields and lots for Amazon-style warehouses now exempts e-commerce companies.
Once Americans return to crowded offices, schools, buses and trains, so too will their sneezes and sniffles.
Having been introduced to the idea of wearing masks to protect themselves and others, some Americans are now considering a behavior scarcely seen in the United States but long a fixture in other cultures: routinely wearing a mask when displaying symptoms of a common cold or the flu, even in a future in which Covid-19 isn’t a primary concern.
“I will still feel a responsibility to protect others from my illness when I have a cold or bronchitis or something along those lines,” said Gwydion Suilebhan, a writer and arts administrator in Washington who said he also plans to continue wearing masks in situations like flying on airplanes. “It’s a responsible part of being a human in a civil society to care for the people around you.”
Such routine use of masks has been common for decades in other countries, primarily in East Asia, as protection against allergies or pollution, or as a common courtesy to protect nearby people.
Meet the Press.”
Other leading American health officials, however, have not encouraged the behavior. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which at the beginning of the pandemic advised against wearing masks, and only changed its guidance a couple of months later — does not advise people with flu symptoms to wear masks, and says they “may not effectively limit transmission in the community.”
That’s partly because there’s no tidy scientific consensus on the effect of masks on influenza virus transmission, according to experts who have studied it.
Nancy Leung, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said that the science exploring possible links between masking and the emission or transmission of influenza viruses was nuanced — and that the nuances were often lost on the general public.
randomized controlled trials — the gold standard in scientific research — that masking reduced transmission of influenza viruses in a community.
There was some evidence from observational studies that masks reduced community transmission of influenza viruses, she added, but that research had a caveat: Observational studies cannot isolate masking from other possible factors, such as hand hygiene or social distancing.
“You can’t really decipher whether that observed reduction in transmission is due to face masks alone or not,” Dr. Leung said.
For similar reasons, the fact that the flu all but vanished in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic — and that many Americans anecdotally reported that they caught fewer colds than usual in 2020 — is not evidence alone that masks were responsible.
In East Asia, the historical use of masks is based on more than just medical research, and the steps that led each country to adopt them vary widely.
Please sneeze into your elbow, not your hand.)
Others pointed to institutional differences, including a history of anti-masking laws in the United States that were implemented during periods of social unrest in order to discourage violence.
New York State, for example, passed an anti-masking law in 1845 to prevent tenants from demanding land reform, according to research by Sharrona Pearl, a professor of medical ethics at Drexel University in Philadelphia. And from the 1920s to 1950s, several states passed similar laws in response to violence by the Ku Klux Klan.
Several East Asian scholars said in interviews that the region’s mask-wearing customs varied widely because people in each country had responded over the years to different epidemiological or environmental threats.
Jaehwan Hyun, a professor of history of Pusan National University in South Korea, said that ignoring the nuances could be dangerous.
seasonal dust storms that sweep into the country from Mongolia and northern China.
“Generally speaking, Koreans until recently believed that mask wearing was a sort of ‘Japanese practice,’ not ours,” he said.
In Hong Kong, where 299 people died during the SARS epidemic of 2002-3, the experience of universal masking against that coronavirus helped create a “cultural familiarity” with a practice that was also common during episodes of severe air pollution, Mr. De Kai said.
“It was a big reminder to people that masks are important not only to protect yourself from the pollution but also to avoid infecting those around you,” he said.
In Taiwan, SARS and recent air pollution were the two main factors that prompted people there to develop the habit of mask wearing, said Yeh Ming-Jui, a professor of public health at National Taiwan University in Taipei.
Professor Yeh said he believed mask wearing was not more widespread in the West because people there had no immediate memories of a severe pandemic — at least until now.
“The experience and health practices of past generations have been gradually forgotten,” he said.
Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting from Taipei.