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N95 respirators could offer robust protection from wildfire smoke, researchers say.
According to an August study in the AGU journal GeoHealth, the regulatory standard masks offer a “promising means” to reduce the inhalation of particulate air pollution and reduce the risk of negative health effects.
The Colorado State University and Colorado School of Public Health study authors noted that public health benefits are “strongly dependent” on how often the N95 respirator is used and by how many people.
While surgical masks filtered more than 90% of the particles, previous research showed the masks let about half of the air leak around the mask, making them only about as effective as the synthetic and cotton options.
Surgical masks and synthetic masks would have reduced hospital visits from wildfire smoke by about 17% and 13%, respectively, and cotton masks were measured at only 6%.
The N95s also worked best against larger dust particles and urban air pollution, according to the authors.
The study noted the impact of climate change on the country’s wildfire season. Scientists say that climate change would continue to make wildfires more frequent and intense.
In recent years, smoke from the fire – also known as PM 2.5 – has filled East Coast skies, degrading air quality and irritating lungs, causing inflammation, altering immune function and increasing susceptibility to respiratory infections.
Smoke exposure is linked to both long-term and short-term health issues, including decreased lung function, weakened immune systems, higher rates of flu and even hospitalizations and death.
According to the CDC, people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, pregnant women, and children are especially at risk, as symptoms can include trouble breathing, wheezing, coughing, asthma attacks, stinging eyes, scratchy throat, runny nose, irritated sinuses, headaches, fatigue, chest pain and increased heart rate.
At-risk groups are instructed to avoid outdoor activities to reduce exposure, wear N95s, keep doors and windows closed and run an air filter to clean inside air.
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