Those scarce N95 masks you've been hoping to find as part of your COVID-19 stay-safe strategy? It turns out, there's a time you may need to use them even if no one else is around: during wildfire season.
N95s, unlike cloth, dust and paper masks, can filter out the most harmful particles in wildfire smoke, thanks to their tight-fitting design and layers of protection.* But unlike wildfire seasons in years past, it's difficult for most people to buy N95 masks right now because they must be reserved for COVID first responders and healthcare workers.
Fortunately, even without an N95, you can stay safe when air quality drops by limiting your exposure:
- Keep doors and windows closed. Rely on air conditioning, but close the fresh air intake and replace the air filter more often. For added protection, use towels to seal cracks under doors and around windows. In your car, use recirculated rather than fresh air. Once air quality improves, open windows to freshen your home and change your car's air filter.
- Postpone yard chores and exercise. Also avoid vacuuming the carpet, which can send settled particles floating back into the air.
- Invest in an air cleaner with a HEPA filter. The pleated filters capture and trap particles suspended in the air. When you're choosing an air cleaner, check its Clean Air Delivery Rating (CADR) to make sure it's appropriate for the size of your room and is efficient at removing smoke. (If you're buying a filter for your furnace or air conditioning system, always follow manufacturer's recommendations.) Be mindful of devices advertised as "air purifiers." They often generate ozone, which is widely recognized as a lung irritant.
Finally, even if you're doing everything right to minimize smoke exposure, know when to get medical help. A scratchy throat, mild cough and itchy eyes are normal during poor air quality. However, a cough that won't go away, shortness of breath, fatigue, unusual weakness or chest pain and tightness should be checked out.
*Air-quality experts note that an N95 mask doesn't give wearers a "free pass" to carry on as normal during poor air quality. They can't filter noxious gases you might encounter near a fire.