Yes, N95 Face Masks Can Help Protect You Against Wildfire Smoke


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May 29, 2023

Yes, N95 Face Masks Can Help Protect You Against Wildfire Smoke

People are given N-95 masks at Grand Central Terminal during the morning rush

People are given N-95 masks at Grand Central Terminal during the morning rush hour on June 8, 2023, ... [+] in New York City, as smoke from wildfires in Canada continue to affect the city, forcing the closure of schools June 8 and 9. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

Guess what's happening with Canadian wildfire smoke now covering a lot of the Eastern U.S., triggering bad air-quality warnings. Many more people are wearing N95 face masks again. After all, such masks, surprise, surprise, can help protect you. They are able to filter out not only respiratory viruses such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) but also the particulate matter in wildfire smoke before such things reach your nose and mouth. So, no matter what some political leaders and personalities may say on social media, N95 respirators can do what they are actually designed to do.

Some locations are even distributing N95 face masks again. For example, on Wednesday, New York state governor Kathy Hochul (D) announced that approximately one million N95-style face masks would be made available to the public. Around 400,000 of these face masks will be distributed at state-owned facilities in the New York City Area, such as Metropolitan Transit Authority and Port Authority locations, New York State Parks and the Javits Center. The remaining 600,000 would go to local governments at Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services stockpiles. Here is a video showing Hochul's announcement:

"Every part of New York State has experienced unhealthy air quality in the last 24 hours as a result of Canadian wildfires, and our number one priority right now is keeping New Yorkers safe," Hochul said. As I reported on Wednesday for Forbes, the smoke from over 100 wildfires in Canada has pushed air-quality measures across much of the Northeast and Middle Atlantic U.S. to the "unhealthy," "very unhealthy," and even in some cases "hazardous" levels. Breathing in wildfire smoke isn't like standing next to an airport Cinnabon store and inhaling. The particulate matter in wildfire smoke can not only irritate your eyes, throat and respiratory tract, it could potentially trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and other potentially life-threatening conditions.

That's why public health authorities have been urging people in areas affected by the wildfire to stay indoors as much as possible. Of course, staying indoors may not be an option if you have to go elsewhere to work or your cat takes all of your credit cards and you have to chase your cat outside. Therefore, wearing a N95 face mask can protect you should you have to venture outside into the smoke.

The emphasis here should be on the N95. Face coverings are like significant others and sandwiches. They are not all the same. A given N95 face mask has received such designation from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) because testing has shown that it can filter out at least 95% of all small particles. The percentage of airborne particles that can filtered out is the number in the designation. The "N" comes from the letter designation of how resistant the mask is to oil. An "N" mask is "Not resistant to oil." A "R" mask is "somewhat Resistant to oil." A "P" is "oil Proof" or strongly resistant to oil. So, don't start pouring some balsamic vinaigrette dressing on your N95 respirator. Also, avoid touching the mask portion of your N95 face mask. You are a very, very oily person. If you question this, try smearing your face against a mirror and see what happens.

One caveat, though. While N95 face masks can filter out particles, it will not filter out toxic gases and fumes. The biggest concerns with wildfire smoke are" fine inhalable particles" or PM 2.5 which are particles that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller. These particles are small enough to get into the smallest airways of your lungs. However, that's not the only danger with wildfire smoke, especially if you are very close to the wildfires. Wildfire smoke can also contain various toxic gases since the wildfires are burning plants, other organic material, rubber, and who knows what else may be on the grounds of Quebec and Alberta, Canada. These toxic fumes may dissipate the further they get from the wildfire source. If you are in the U.S., such fumes from the Canada wildfires may not be of as great concern. So N95 face masks should offer adequate protection.

By contrast, regular face coverings such as cloth masks and surgical masks will not really keep you from inhaling the particulate matter in wildfire smoke. The pores or openings in such face covering are too large to keep particles that are less than 2.5 micrograms from getting through. Plus, if the face covering doesn't have a tight seal against your face—meaning a firm fit rather than an animal with flippers—the fine particulate matter can sneak in through the sides of the face covering.

So if you are going to be outside when the air quality is deemed unhealthy or worse, it is a good idea to wear a N95 face mask that can actually protect your nose and mouth from breathing in the fine particulate matter. Because breathing in such stuff is not a fine thing to do. And it does matter what type of face covering you use.

"N "R R "P P PM 2.5