Is the N95 Face Mask the Best Solution for Wildfire Smoke?

Many parts of California are experiencing dangerous air quality because of wildfire smoke. There are several types of personal protection for our lungs during extreme air events. When you go outside during a local wildfire or other extreme air event, you see people with many different solutions to the dirty air, from bandanas to full-face gas masks to the ubiquitous N95 hardware store mask. The N95 mask offers the minimum level of protection from smoke and air pollution.

Here is a brief look at each mask type and how to figure out which one is best for you. Always make sure to follow the advice of health and safety professionals.

What are the different types of protective masks?

The level of protection you receive from a face mask will depend on which type you use.

Surgical face masks. These are flimsy pieces of paper or fabric held loosely across the nose and mouth. They are not designed to filter anything that is dissolved in the air. Rather, they stop droplets of liquid from entering or exiting the mouth and nose. They are really only for ensuring that infections are not passed between patients and caretakers or medical personnel.

Respirators. A respirator is a device that forms a seal around your mouth to protect you from particles floating in the air. They are primarily designed to stop small particles from entering the lungs through the mouth or nose. Most are domes of fibrous fabric held tightly over the mouth and nose. The N95 is a type of respirator mask.

Gas mask. A gas mask is a type of respirator, but it contains filtration media that stop not only particles but also different gases. The user’s own breathing is used to draw air through the filter media. Gas masks usually have filtration cartridges that must be changed as they become saturated with toxins.

Power Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR). This is a lot like a gas mask except it has a battery to run a fan that propels the air through the filtration cartridges. If you have a condition that restricts breathing a PAPR is a much better choice than a standard gas mask to prevent undue strain on the lungs.

Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). An expensive and heavy device, a SCBA supplies oxygen and is only used by professionals such as firefighters when entering an area where oxygen will be scarce. It requires a heavy oxygen tank (at least 30 pounds), and so is inadvisable for anyone not trained in its carrying and usage.

How do I choose the best face mask for me?

To keep your lungs safe from wildfire smoke or other extreme air event, here is what you can consider when choosing a face mask:

First, here is what you should avoid: Surgical face masks, bandanas, or the top half of your sweater are insufficient to protect against airborne toxins. Particles of smoke, dirt, and other unhealthy substances easily get around these poor seals.

N-95 Respirator masks

Particulate respirators are usually the best call for most people who are concerned with keeping their lungs healthy during an extreme air event. It is particularly important to get one with the proper rating, however.

N95 are the most common respirator masks available and are usually sufficient. The “95” means the mask is capable of filtering out 95% of particles sized 0.3 microns. Some masks may be rated N99 or even N100, which means they will filter 99% and 99.97% respectively. The letter part of the rating is less important as it refers to the mask’s ability to resist oil-based liquids that may splash on the mask such as blood or automotive fluids that may splash on the mask in occupational settings. “N” means that mask is Not oil resistant.

Some masks may be rated R, which means they are oil-Resistant, or even P, which means they are oil Proof. The P100 mask is one kind of oil proof mask that can filter 99.97% of particles (rounded up to be rated 100). The N95 is the best option for most since higher numbers or more oil-resistant ratings also make it more difficult to breathe.

Avoid respirators that do not have a rating or do not have “NIOSH” stamped next to the rating. NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a part of the Center for Disease Control. NIOSH recommends a full seal between the mask and your face, so trim your beard if you have one, and get a specially fitted mask for any children you are responsible for. Along the same lines, the standard masks do not provide a seal around a dog’s muzzle, so if you need to keep your dog’s lungs safe, invest in a mask specifically for your dog.

Some respirators have a little box with a valve in the center. This is to allow exhaust breath to escape. While this reduces the efficacy of the respirator, it also allows carbon dioxide, heat, and moisture to vent.

Gas masks

Gas masks are much more expensive and require separate filtration cartridges. People with severe asthma or chemical sensitivities should consider using a gas mask to be sure they are breathing the clean air their lungs need.

If you have heart or lung issues that cause shortness-of-breath

If you  have a special health condition,  it may be necessary to get a PAPR or just not use a mask at all, though you should follow instructions from a medical professional. This will ensure that even if you are breathing heavily, there will not be any extra strain. In fact, the California Department of Public Health states that “wearing a mask may actually be harmful to some people with heart or lung disease because it can make the lungs work harder to breathe.” And even if you do not have any cardiopulmonary issues, you will be breathing in less oxygen when using a mask, so be sure to take it off whenever you get a chance or if you find breathing through it difficult.

Tips to keep yourself safe during extreme air events

Do not modify your respirator. Pretty doodads affixed to the outside can block incoming air, glues and inks have substances you do not want to breathe, and any holes from staples or pins will reduce the efficacy of the respirator.

Get more than one. The New York Institute of Health tells us that respirators become clogged with dust and moisture as you breathe through them, which will make them ineffective and impede your ability to get oxygen. N95 masks last for hours, not days, so be sure to use a new one when you feel like yours is getting harder to breathe through.

Stay home. In your house with doors and windows closed is the healthiest place to be during an extreme air event. Make sure your HVAC system, if you have one, is in good order and that any filters are changed regularly. A home air purifier is a great idea if possible. Do not wear your mask indoors.

Go to a public indoor space. While places like libraries, museums, and malls often have people entering and exiting and letting in outside air, they are still healthier than being outside. If your house is poorly sealed or you do not have an air purifier, head to a large indoor space that has decent HVAC.

Create a safe-breathing room. Select one room in your home, ideally your bedroom since you will be breathing in there for hours each night, and make it a safe-breathing room. Do not open the windows at all, only open the door sparingly, and stuff towels or other material into any spaces where outside air may leak in. Place your air purifier in there if you have one.

Consider an air purifier. There are many air purifiers to choose from, but at a minimum it is best to get one with a high-grade HEPA filter to filter out smoke particles. The Molekule air purifier can remove smoke particles in addition to eliminating the toxic organic gases that are components of wood smoke, which neither a HEPA filter nor a respirator will stop.

Using the right type of face mask for protection from smoke and air pollution can help when you have to go outside in poor air quality conditions. The N95 respirator mask can offer adequate protection for most people, though you may need a higher level of protection with the additional types of masks discussed above.

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