Which COVID-19 Mask Works For Wildfire Smoke?

The CDC and doctors say cloth masks for COVID-19 don’t protect from smoke's harmful side effects.
Posted at 4:56 PM, Sep 18, 2020

Wildfire is blanketing parts of the West, and its smoke can cause major health issues. But doctors warn cloth masks for COVID-19 don't protect from smoke's harmful side effects. 

Particulate matter in the smoke is what causes health problems. The smallest, 20 times smaller than a strand of hair, can be inhaled and make their way to the lower respiratory tract and lungs. Short-term, it can cause the eyes or nose to burn. But it can lead to cough and breathing problems too. 

"It weakens the lungs' defenses because it irritates the lungs. We have increased secretions in our lungs, in our upper airways. It can make it easier to get ill from a virus or other type of infection," Dr. Afif El-Hasan, spokesman for the American Lung Association, says.

The CDC says while cloth masks block the respiratory droplets that cause COVID-19, they don't block the small particulate matter from wildfire smoke. The same goes for neck bandanas, too. 

"The particulate size is too small to be filtered by masks such as that. And then frequently these masks are not fitted tight enough," says Dr. Todd Bull, UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital's Comprehensive Lung and Breathing Program director.

N95 respirators without valves do provide protection from wildfire smoke, but it's already very hard to track one down, and doctors warn they might be in short supply as frontline health care workers prepare for a possible COVID-19 resurgence come fall. 

Meantime, checking your local air quality is key. Dr. Todd Bull with the University of Colorado Hospital says if the local air quality index is above 100, stay inside with the windows closed — something that can be challenging for people who are already stir-crazy during the pandemic. 

"I don't think that we should be outside but at the same time, we've been cooped up in the house already for months," Issa Ubidia-Luckett, a Portland resident, says.