Face Masks Are Not Effective In Wildfire Smoke, Authorities Say

Jeffrey Schaub
August 30, 2019 - 11:18 am
Fans wear face masks in the stands during the NFL game between the Oakland Raiders and the Los Angeles Chargers at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on November 11, 2018 in Oakland, California.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The N95 face masks that many people purchased at the behest of officials last November when huge amounts of smoky air wafted into the Bay Area don't work as advertised, according to health officials. 

The masks, which are supposed to filter pollutants, do not fit small children and can impair breathing with a buildup of moisture and debris, the Association of Bay Area Health Officials.

During the Camp Fire, which ravaged Butte County, hardware stores in the Bay Area couldn't keep the allegedly beneficial masks in stock. In some especially smoky area, the masks were distributed for free. 

Related: Stylized Masks In High Demand During Air Quality Crisis

"There is no clear evidence that N95 respirator use is beneficial during a wildfire smoke event," the Bay Area Health Officials' statement reads. 

Napa County Health Officer Karen Relucio added that most N95 masks will not fully fit a person's face. 

"Wearing an ill fitted mask can actually lead to a false sense of security," Relucio said. "There could be leakage around the mask. It could be that the mask is a little too loose. Anyone with facial hair, an N95 respirator will not protect them."

The mask could do more harm than good, the health association said. 

"It's hard to keep that mask on the whole time, because it's hard to breathe. If you have underlying lung disease or heart disease, it's even more difficult, and actually it could make you sick," Relucio explained. 
Marin County Fire chief Jeff Weber agrees.

"There isn't a great deal of science behind the benefit of these for smoke, and I think the recommendation our health officers are making is important," he said. 

Both Webber and Relucio told KCBS Radio the healthiest thing people can do during wildfires is stay indoors as much as possible. 

"If you can avoid being in the air, that's the first choice, so being in filtered air, inside, is the preference," Webber said.