How Effective Are Face Masks against Fire

As Canada continues in its battle against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, National Resources Canada projects a possible fire risk that’s well above average within Northern Ontario and surrounding territories.

It’s estimated that parts of Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan could also experience a heightened risk of wildfires. In 2015 alone, as per the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 9.8 million acres burned across Canada and Alaska.

Down below in the United States, it took a week for over 1 million acres of land to burn both in Northern and Southern California. What’s even more unfortunate is that the danger is not limited to the immediate surrounding area.

Wildfires produce gigantic smoke plumes that drift for miles away from the embers of the flames. This means that the air in these areas is not safe to breathe and it places people at risk of respiratory distress or asthmatic attacks as a result of increased air pollution.

With countries experiencing a shortage of face masks because of the ongoing pandemic, how do people protect themselves from inhaling pollutants caused by wildfires?

Let’s take a closer look at what pollutants are caused by fire, what effects they have on people, and how effective face masks are against fire.

Toxic Hazards Released by Fire

Particle air pollution happens as a result of a fire. These particles make up nearly 80% of wildfire smoke and are a mix of very small solid and liquid particles such as ash and dust suspended in the air.

Many of these particles are not as big as the diameter of a strand of your hair and they can enter deep inside the lungs. A significant accumulation of these particles can trigger lung cancer, heart attacks, and strokes that might prove fatal.

Another threat from fire is carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas that appears during the smoldering phase of a fire. Inhaling the gas limits oxygen delivery to the body’s tissues and organs. This can lead to dizziness, nausea, headaches, and even premature death when inhaled in high concentrations.

How A Face Mask Can Protect You From Smoke

The most effective way of protecting yourself from wildfire is to stay indoors, preferably in a location with an efficient HVAC system. By limiting the time you spend outside, you also get to limit how much you expose yourself to smoke.

If you do have to go outside, you have to wear a face mask or respirator. Without any form of face covering, you will inhale tiny particles from smoke that will travel to the lungs and cause distress to your respiratory system.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), N95 respirators are widely regarded as the gold standard as far as face masks go. They provide the best protection from smoke because they can filter out 95% of airborne particles.

When worn correctly, a respirator can offer protection by filtering out fine particles in the smoke. Some N95 masks are made with valves to make breathing a lot easier, making it possible for them to withstand intense pressure from the respiratory function of the wearer.

They are also designed to establish a firm seal between the chin and the bridge of the nose. This structure helps cover the nose and mouth thus rendering them highly effective respirators.

N95 masks are regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Unfortunately, due to the onset of Covid-19, masks, and respirators are in short supply in North America. As such, the CDC and FDA have insisted that the public avoid buying them so that more will be available for use by frontline healthcare workers.

Are There Any Other Alternatives To N95 Masks

The coronavirus pandemic prompted personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers and suppliers to give the public multiple face-covering options to prevent the health industry from lacking medical-grade face masks in the fight against Covid-19.

Some of these masks include surgical masks, fabric masks, and KN95 masks. Unfortunately, the blue surgical style masks and the loose-fitting fabric face coverings that people use are not very useful against smoke particles. As for KN95 masks, health authorities do not recommend the use of KN95s because they’re not certified by NIOSH.

Fabric face masks are not designed to offer protection from inhaling smoke particulate matter. They are, instead, structured to limit the spread of pathogens as they stop respiratory droplets from coming out of your mouth and possibly infecting others. While it is clear that close masks offer more protection to the exterior than the interior, N95 masks do the exact opposite.

An N95 mask offers protection against the exterior elements such as the particles that are spewed into the air as a result of a fire. These particles are so small that fabric face masks are not designed to offer the same level of protection as an N95 mask.

But the fact that they are not as efficient as N95 masks does not mean they do not offer any sort of protection. Surgical masks, for instance, filter out smoke particulate matter by about 70%. Research has found that fabric masks reduce airborne particles by nearly 60%.

A Face Mask Can Protect You From Smoke but It Depends

Wildfires are a growing natural hazard that poses a threat to your health conditions and life. Wildfire smoke can cause irritation to your nose, eyes, mouth, and lungs, making it very difficult to breathe.

The best strategy against wildfire smoke is to stay inside. Keep doors and windows shut and if possible, invest in an HVAC system or air purification device to filter out smoke particulate matter.

If you’re one of those people who have refused to wear a face mask during the coronavirus crisis, you might want to reconsider especially with smoke from over 300 wildfires ravaging the Western Coast. However, you might have to put more thought into what mask is most ideal for you.

Cloth masks may not compare to the filtering capabilities of N95 masks but remember, the aim is to reduce the level of exposure to smoke particles that may affect the health and of those you hold dear.