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N95 masks can help protect consumers from wildfire smoke, study finds

Experts say these types of masks can help prevent hospitalizations related to these events

Photo (c) athima tongloom - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the American Geophysical Union explored the benefits of utilizing N95 face masks during peak wildfire seasons. 

Their findings showed that using this type of protective gear can be an effective way for consumers to protect themselves from wildfire smoke; ultimately, the masks were associated with a nearly 40% lower risk of hospitalization. 

“Familiarity with the use of face coverings to reduce the risk of respiratory disease has increased during the coronavirus pandemic; however, recommendations for their use outside of the pandemic remains limited,” the researchers wrote. “Here, we develop a modeling framework to quantify the potential health benefits of wearing a face covering or respirator to mitigate exposure to particulate air pollution.” 

Multiple benefits of face masks

For the study, the researchers tested how well different types of face coverings can filter out air pollution particles; their trials included synthetic, cotton, and surgical masks, and N95 respirator face masks. They pumped air and different kinds of pollution particles inside a plastic box with each face covering to determine which one was the most effective at filtering out particles and which ones were most likely to leak air out. 

The study showed that N95 masks were the most effective at filtering out harmful particles emitted during wildfires and were the least likely to let air out of the sides of the mask. While surgical masks were also able to filter out pollutants, the researchers explained that the air that was released from the sides of these types of masks ultimately made them ineffective. 

Synthetic face coverings reduced exposure to air pollution by a factor of 2.2 and cotton face coverings reduced exposure by a factor of 1.4. However, N95 masks lowered exposure to pollutants by a factor of 16. 

Staying out of the hospital

The researchers say N95 masks can help reduce the likelihood that consumers will be hospitalized following exposure to wildfire smoke. They analyzed data from 2012 wildfire hospitalizations in Washington and used those totals to estimate how many people were likely to consistently wear masks in peak wildfire season. 

In that year, wearing an N95 mask would have reduced related hospitalizations by about 30%. If consumers wear these types of face coverings to protect themselves from pollution moving forward, the team said hospitalizations could drop by as much as nearly 40%. 

While there are currently no face mask guidelines in place for consumers who live in areas where wildfires are common, the researchers hope these findings highlight the benefits of wearing the proper protective equipment. 

“I think this particular study serves a nice gap in terms of thinking about how we translate that kind of filtration data into real levels of protection, and real differences in health effects that we could see in a population,” said researcher Stephanie Holm. 

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