Several experts question whether face masks should still be worn as protection from influenza, common colds, and other respiratory viruses related to the COVID-19 pandemic. People are asking similar questions about masks during wildfires that release noxious smoke plumes into the atmosphere. As wildfire season creeps into Autumn, which masks help against the smoke?
“People were asking, should we keep them on in the summer when the fire season starts?” Jack Kodros, a researcher at Colorado State University and lead author of a new study on the topic, said in a statement. “There weren’t a lot of guidelines on what sort of masks would be helpful for wildfire smoke.”
The researchers tested the effectiveness of N95, synthetic cotton, or surgical masks. First, they tried to see the mask’s efficiency in blocking particles of different sizes. Particles can enter the lungs and cause health complications, such as asthma, respiratory infections, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. For the study, masks fit a pipe that breathed in air and particles from an enclosed plastic box.
According to a study published in August in GeoHealth, N95s reduced exposure to harmful particles by 16 times. Following are synthetic masks, made of plastic, nylon, spandex, or polyester, which performed “poorly” in filtering hazardous particles from wildfire smoke. As a result, there was only a 2.2% reduction in exposure.
The cotton mask performed even worse, reducing exposure by 1.4%.
In studies on surgical masks, researchers determined that they can filter over 90% of particles. Still, about 50% can leak through gaps on the sides if they are worn improperly, so they are nearly as effective as synthetic or cotton masks.
The N95 masks also offered better protection against larger dust particles and air pollution found in cities, such as vehicle exhaust, which is smaller than that from wildfire smoke. The typical size of a smoke particle is equal to that of a bacterium or the thickness of one strand of hair.
N95 masks may reduce hospitalizations related to wildfire smoke by 22-39%, which is essential as global warming will continue to increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires.
As part of the research, the team developed models to estimate the benefits of wearing a mask within a population. It was based on the probability of wearing a mask and how often they would wear them over the course of the fire season. In addition, data from Washington’s 2012 fire season was inserted to determine if masks might have prevented smoke-related hospitalizations.
In the end, N95 masks would have prevented about 30% of hospitalizations caused by wildfire smoke inhalation. About 17% of hospital admissions would have been avoided with surgical masks, while 13% would have been avoided with synthetic masks. Hospitalizations would have been reduced by 6% if cotton masks had been used during wildfire season.
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