Last year was the most destructive wildfire season in California’s history. Hundreds of thousands of acres burned, causing billions in property damage and tragic losses of life across the state. Even in areas not directly affected by the fires, millions of people were exposed to wildfire smoke, and air quality became an important topic of discussion among workers, who spend much of their time outdoors, and the public.
“Choosing the proper respirator can prevent overexposure to the harmful contaminants found in wildfire smoke,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Being educated on what respirators and paper dust masks do and do not protect against can help LIUNA members and their families protect their safety and health during times of reduced air quality.”
What’s in Wildfire Smoke?
All smoke is a mixture of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals. Particulate matter in wildfire smoke includes microscopic bits of organic chemicals, metals, soil or dust particles and allergens such as pollen or mold spores that are suspended in the air. These microscopic particles can get deep into the lungs. While a facial covering like a wet bandana might keep someone from inhaling grit or other visible dust, it won’t stop fine particulates from getting into the lungs because of their size – they are much smaller than the width of even a single human hair.
Inhaling these particles can cause a range of health effects, from irritation of the lungs and throat to more serious conditions such as bronchitis, worsening of existing asthma and heart failure. Exposure to high concentrations of particulates can cause persistent cough, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing. Children, pregnant women and the elderly are especially vulnerable to smoke exposure, as are people with cardiovascular disease.
Paper Masks vs. Respirators
During times of poor air quality, many people choose to cover their mouth and nose to protect themselves from breathing in wildfire smoke. However, not all masks and facial coverings actually protect the lungs from the harmful respirable particles found in wildfire smoke. Here’s a breakdown of the intended use and level of protection offered by each:
- Paper dust masks: Also called surgical masks, these loose-fitting masks have only one strap and don’t form a tight seal to the wearer’s face. They are designed to stop liquid droplets and aerosols coming out of the wearer’s mouth, not filter the air coming in. With no filter and no facial seal, they are not designed to prevent the inhalation of respirable particles found in smoke. Although they may look the same, dust masks are not respirators and should not be used for that purpose.
- N95s and P100s: These respirators have two sets of straps and form a tight seal to the face. The entire respirator is made of filtering material. N95s are the most common, with P100s being more protective (similar to a HEPA filter). Both types can often be found in hardware stores and other retail outlets. These respirators are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), so look for “NIOSH” and the designation “N95” or “P100” on the respirator.
When worn correctly, these respirators are effective at filtering out the small respirable particles found in wildfire smoke. However, they do not filter out fumes and gases; for that, see the next type of respirator listed.
- Half-face or full-face respirator: Unlike N95s and P100s, which are disposable, half-face and full-face respirators offer a tight-fitting, flexible facepiece with replaceable filter cartridges. N95 particulate filters or purple (P100 or HEPA) filter cartridges will protect against particulates in wildfire smoke. When used with a combination filter that has an organic vapor cartridge, these respirators would also protect against harmful fumes and gases. However, neither these respirators nor N95s supply oxygen.
Steps for Using an N95 or P100 Respirator Correctly
- Place the respirator over your nose and under your chin, with one strap below the ears and one strap above. If you’re wearing a hat, place it over the straps.
- Pinch the metal nose clip tightly over the top of your nose.
- Replace the respirator when it becomes damaged, soiled or more difficult to breathe through. It may be necessary to use a fresh respirator daily.
For a respirator to provide protection, it must form a tight seal around the mouth and nose. Facial hair doesn’t allow a tight fit, so wearers should be clean-shaven. Respirators can increase risk for other medical conditions because it is more difficult to breathe through them. If you feel dizzy, lightheaded or nauseous, first tell someone, then go to a less smoky area, remove your respirator and seek medical attention.
This article covers general respirator use. Workers performing wildfire cleanup or wearing respirators for other purposes should follow their employers’ policies under OSHA’s respiratory protection standard or other applicable standards.