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How your mask is doing double duty in wildfire states

Are you safe from both COVID and harmful wildfire smoke?

Mar 22, 2021, 9:30 am*

The Daily Dot Bazaar

 

Colette Bennett

Saying 2020 is a dumpster fire is a wild understatement. Despite nearing the eighth month of this pandemic, most human beings are still figuring out how to coexist with a deadly virus with no cure or vaccine as of yet, all while juggling working at home, homeschooling their kids, and trying not to have a nervous breakdown. Oh, and did we mention a large portion of the western United States is on fire?

Of course, if you live in states like California or Colorado, you already know that since the fires have been ongoing since August. The Cameron Peak fire made history for being the largest on record in the state of Colorado. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reports that more than 4.13 million acres have burned. CNN reports that 26 homes have been destroyed in Colorado so far––and the fires rage on.

It’s hard to imagine any silver lining in a situation so dire. But the fact that face masks have become an essential accessory may be protecting residents affected by wildfire states from more than just COVID. It’s also helping your lungs. 

Does a face mask protect you from smoke inhalation?

Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of pollutants that can cause a myriad of health problems when inhaled. The EPA reports that even a few days of exposure to wildfire smoke is enough to cause severe damage. Children under the age of 18, pregnant women, middle-aged people or older, and those of low socio-economic status are at the highest risk. At best, the smoke and ash can irritate the eyes, nose, and lungs. At worst, it can provoke severe asthma attacks, heart failure, and death.

Unfortunately, the majority of face masks do not offer the necessary protection from wildfire smoke. Much like COVID, wildfire smoke contains small particles that can get through bandanas, cloth masks, and dust masks. And no, you can’t trust the face masks on Amazon, so please don’t risk your health to save a few bucks.

While FDA-registered surgical masks have filters that can block aerosolized COVID particles, the particulate matter from wildfires is not contained within water vapor droplets. Although, the University of San Francisco reports that surgical masks can be helpful to filter out toxins in the weeks after the fire. 

The best mask that can provide sufficient protection from the damaging effects of wildfire smoke is a NIOSH-certified N95 respirator. Both the California and Washington State Department of Health guidelines recommend staying indoors,” as face masks are not typically recommended as the best option to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke.” However, that’s not always an option. So if there is a need to use a face mask for limited time outside, “a N95 or other NIOSH respirator rated for fine particulates is usually recommended with several necessary steps to ensure it is worn correctly to achieve a proper fit and seal.”

That would be all fine and well if we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic that was causing a significant shortage in N95 respirators. In fact, most of the California and Washington Department of Health information was last updated in 2019, and finding COVID-related guidelines proved to be more difficult.

Like most consequences of COVID, there is a huge lack of information out there for people who want to be as safe as possible while still existing. The year 2020 is nearly over and “just stay indoors” isn’t really an option for those with jobs and responsibilities that require them to leave home. Not to mention those who’ve had to evacuate their homes due to wildfires. It’s just not possible to hole up inside 24/7. So what are we supposed to do?

Coming soon: N95 respirators available to buy in the U.S.

Those in wildfire states may soon have a more realistic option, as a company in Austin is helping fight the PPE shortage. 

Armbrust USA is currently the only company in the U.S. manufacturing and selling medical-grade surgical masks and soon, NIOSH-certified N95 respirators directly to consumers. The company is already taking preorders for respirators and expects these ventilators will be ready to ship by December 2020 once NIOSH approval is finalized.

Since Armbrust’s current focus is on direct-to-consumer sales, purchasing its N95 respirators does not take away from the supply needed for the medical field. That’s because until now, there hasn’t been a company making FDA-registered masks for consumers, who typically don’t purchase 10,000+ masks at once. 

All U.S.-based companies that manufacture N95 respirators sell them in mass quantities under exclusive, billion-dollar contracts with corporations, including most hospitals. Because of that, Armbrust—a company that was established as a result of the pandemic—is not in direct competition with manufacturers like 3M, though they hope to scale. And when Dr. Anthony Fauci suggests we’ll be wearing masks and socially distancing until 2022, we’re certainly going to need more feasible options. 

In addition to purchasing your own certified surgical masks and N95 respirators, you can even donate a box to first responders via its website. It’s a small way to fight back against systems that have made PPE shortages a struggle in the U.S. 

You can purchase Armbrust’s N95 respirator masks in a pack of 10, which currently retail for $39. Preorders are open now on the company website.

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*First Published: Oct 30, 2020, 11:35 am