With wildfires now burning throughout much of southern Oregon and the western U.S., the threat of smoke-filled air will be looming over Lane County in the days and weeks to come.
Smoke-filled air poses a health threat due to the fine particulate matter it contains, which according to the Environmental Protection Agency can cause health problems such as irritated eyes, reduced lung functioning, bronchitis and exacerbation of cardiovascular or respiratory disorders. Populations who are especially vulnerable to smoke exposure include children, pregnant women and the elderly.
One of the simplest ways people can prevent some of these health risks is by wearing a respirator mask. However, there are many different types of respirator masks suited for different purposes and improper wearing of the masks can drastically reduce the protection they provide.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a federal agency within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends using respirators that are classified as N95 level or higher. “N95” refers to the filter class of the respirator, with 95 indicating that the respirator will filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles. More detailed information about NIOSH and the different classifications of respirators can be found here.
N95 respirators are widely available for purchase online as well as at pharmacies, general stores such as Fred Meyer and home improvement stores such as True Value. Because local supplies of respirator masks may quickly run out in the event of intense smoke penetration, it’s advisable to purchase them in advance of such an event.
To ensure proper wearing of masks, consult this pictorial guide created by NIOSH. Common mistakes include putting masks on upside down and not checking to make sure there is a proper seal around your airways.
Although respirator masks can be used more than once, the stress placed on the masks by reuse can cause their safety performance to decrease over time. One study found that more than five uses of certain N95 respirators resulted in impaired fits for the masks, thereby leaving the wearer more exposed to harmful elements.
The Lane Regional Air Protection Agency website provides up-to-date information on the county’s air quality. Additionally, the Real-Time Assessment and Planning Tool for Oregon is a multi-layered map with information about ongoing wildfires, road closures, shelters and much more.