By Timothy Beck Werth August 1, 2021 – SPY Magazine
“Remember the Butterfly Effect? Jeff Goldblum explained it best in Jurassic Park: “A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking, and in Central Park, you get rain instead of sunshine.”
Here in the United States, East Coast residents just experienced a painful demonstration of the Butterfly Effect in action. Wildfires thousands of miles away in California and Oregon led to some of the worst air quality Central Park has seen in years.
The historic droughts and high temperatures on the West Coast sparked wildfires that sent smoke all over the country. The unusually intense wildfire season caused smoke, hydrocarbons and other pollutants to travel high into the atmosphere, where they encountered the jet stream. That’s why in late July, an orange-grey haze settled over New York City as the air quality index measure of fine particulate matter reached 170, a level that’s dangerous for everyone.
The NOAA’s wildfire smoke map shows a blanket of smoke descending on the East Coast.Courtesy of NOAA
Like most New Yorkers, I still have a stack of face masks by my front door, which got me wondering, “Will my N95 face masks protect me from air pollution and wildfire smoke? What about my regular cloth face masks?” And, if I’m being honest, “Do I really have to wear masks again?”
Prior to the pandemic, these face masks were used primarily in countries with dangerous levels of air pollution and by workers who are exposed to fine particulates in the workplace. Common sense would dictate that N95 masks will also protect you from wildfire smoke, but I wanted to be sure.
I consulted some experts to answer your questions about face masks, air pollution, and the dangerous wildfire smoke that’s been blanketing the country in recent weeks. I’ve also included links to purchase N95 masks and air purifiers below, but the specific products featured below were not endorsed or recommended by the experts I spoke to.
What Are N95 Masks?
N95 masks (and KN95 masks) are rated to filter out 95% of particles 0.3 microns in size and larger from the air we breathe. Because coronavirus particles are usually attached to water droplets larger than 0.3 microns, these masks are one of the most effective tools in stopping the spread of COVID-19 (along with vaccines, of course). They can also be used to capture pollutants caused by vehicles, industrial processes, wildfires and other sources. Also known as N95 respirators, they are worn around the nose and mouth.
What Are the Dangers of Wildfire Smoke?
Wildfire smoke and other forms of air pollution are associated with an increased risk of asthma, and they’re especially harmful to people who already suffer from respiratory problems — including COVID-19.
In a statement on its website, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that “Wildfire smoke can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system, and make you more prone to lung infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.”
The Air Quality Index (AQI) measures the amount of fine particulate matter in the air. Levels between 100-150 are considered dangerous for sensitive groups. However, levels above 150, like the conditions seen recently up and down the east coast, are dangerous for everyone, according to the U.S. Environmental Protective Agency.
Will N95 Face Masks Protect You from Pollution When the Air Quality Index Is High?
The expert consensus on this is clear: N95 masks and KN95 masks absolutely offer protection from wildlife smoke and air pollution.
The CDC website states that “N95 and KN95 respirators can provide protection from wildfire smoke and from getting and spreading COVID-19.”
I also spoke with Maria Harris, an Environmental Epidemiologist with the Environmental Defense Fund. In a recent interview with Spy, she told me that both N95 masks and HEPA air purifiers are important tools.
“N95 masks (also called respirators) can help filter out the fine particulate pollution in wildfire smoke that can harm respiratory and cardiovascular health. But when it comes to wildfire smoke, N95s are really a last resort option, rather than a primary line of defense. The best way to protect health during periods of heavy wildfire smoke is to stay indoors and keep indoor air as clean as possible, ideally using high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters or air purifiers. People who need to spend extended time outdoors during smoky conditions, for example those who must work outdoors, can help protect themselves with N95 masks.”
Shaz Amin, founder of WellBefore, which sells N95 face masks and other forms of PPE, told me that it’s equally important to wear N95 masks with a proper fit.
“Yes N95 and even KN95 masks are effective in filtering our airborne articles when it comes to pollution and wildfires,” he said. “However, it is key that the mask properly fits your face. Finding the right size of mask is important which is why we offer multiple sizes as well as adjustable straps for a tighter, more comfortable fit,” Amin said.
Will Cloth Face Masks Protect You From Wildfire Smoke?
Harris and the CDC are equally clear that cloth face masks don’t offer any meaningful protection when an air quality warning is in effect.
“Unfortunately, regular fabric masks do not offer good protection from the tiny, harmful particles found in wildfire smoke,” Harris said.
Should You Avoid Exercising When the AQI Is Above 150?
Ultimately, people will need to decide for themselves what level of risk they’re willing to accept when there are air quality warnings in effect. For instance, the EPA advises that unusually sensitive people should avoid exerting themselves even when the AQI is between 51-100. In general, most people should avoid exercise and heavy exertion when the AQI exceeds 151.
The EPA has guidelines on its website for when to limit your time outside based on the air quality.
“I try to time my outdoor exercise for periods when the air is relatively clear, ideally when the AQI is less than 100,” Harris said. “During a wildfire, changes in wind direction and atmospheric conditions can cause rapid changes in smoke concentrations across an area, so it can be helpful to monitor smoke and air quality conditions in real-time to choose the best time to exercise outdoors.”
“One helpful tool is the Fire and Smoke map from the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program, which incorporates crowd-sourced data from low cost pollution sensors deployed across the United States,” she added.
Do We Really Have To Wear Masks Again?
If you find yourself groaning at the idea of wearing face masks again, especially outside, you’re definitely not alone. However, the science is clear that wearing properly fitting N95 and KN95 masks will offer protection from pollution.
“At the end of the day it’s a personal choice,” Amin said. “I personally hate getting up at 5 a.m. and going to the gym. Am I the happiest person running on the treadmill? No. But I know it’s good for my health, so I do it. If you believe air pollution is high and that masks can help alleviate the risk of inhaling toxic airborne particles, it’s a good idea to wear masks.”
“I highly recommend finding masks that are more comfortable to wear as there is no true one size fits all,” Amin added. “Once you have a comfortable mask that fits perfectly for your face you are able to go wear it for longer lengths and not dread it as much.”
Finally, Harris said that it’s important to remember that the long-term effects of climate change aren’t going away anytime soon, and we will all need to adopt new behaviors.
“The combined threats to health of the ongoing pandemic and air pollution from wildfires can feel daunting and overwhelming. In addition to taking immediate actions that can help protect health, like filtering indoor air and wearing N95 masks, I’ve personally tried to channel that fear and anxiety into increased motivation and focus on working to advance the long term solutions that will help ensure a healthier future for all of us.”
“We know that climate change is lengthening the wildfire season and increasing the frequency, severity, and size of fires. Curbing the use of fossil fuels is one key action that could reduce future health impacts from wildfires while also providing huge direct health benefits from cutting year-round air pollution.”
To check the air quality levels in your area, visit airnow.gov.