California wildfire officials are already predicting that the 2021 wildfire season could be one of the worst on record. Fires have already consumed roughly 18 square miles more than last year. Considering that 2020 brought more than 10,000 fires that burned over 6000 miles of land, Californians will need to stay strong during yet another difficult time.
It’s grim news after the record-breaking destruction of last year, making it 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 has caused a significant shortage in N95 respirators (which may or may not remain a problem, depending on who you ask). At this point some can be found here and there if you go looking. But there’s also an easier way to protect your lungs this wildfire season.
Protect yourself with a surgical mask
Those in wildfire states may soon have a more realistic option, as Austin-based mask company Armbrust USA is making masks that can provide optimal protection. It’s N95s are currently in the final stages of NIOSH approval. However its surgical masks are also a excellent solution when paired with a mask fitter. These FDA-listed masks are made from virgin polypropylene and block particles as small as 0.1 microns. In other words, your lungs will be safe––and you will be too.
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