Late last night, New Yorkers were sent a public health considerations with the help of déjà vu: “If you are elderly or have heart or respiratory problems and you have to be outside,” said city officials, “wear a high-quality mask (eg N95 or KN95).
It was, in a sense, good advice – and not so much. This time, the threat is not widespread, or contagious. Instead, masks are being recommended as a defense against the thick, choking smoke coming from Canada, where wildfires have been burning for weeks. The most recent regions of the United States to join the merger are the Midwest, the Ohio Valley, the Northeast, and the Mid-Atlantic.
The situation is, in a word, bad. Yesterday, New Haven, Connecticut, entered Bad breath readings are recorded; in parts of New York and Pennsylvania, other villages it’s covered in pollutants at levels the Environmental Protection Agency considers “hazardous”—the most dangerous name on its list. It is, to put it mildly, the worst time to be outside. And for those who “to be to go outside,” says Linsey Marr, an ecologist at Virginia Tech, “I would strongly recommend wearing a mask.”
Masking tips can cause whiplash. For many Americans, face masks are still very powerful the COVID thing– a protective mask that must be worn when performing dangerous meetings in the house. Now, however, we need to flip the script: Right now, it’s the outside air that we most want to protect our airways from. In more ways than one, the best practices for wearing masks at this point will require ignoring our ideas about how to fight COVID.
The concept of COVID masking can, to be fair, remain effective in dealing with ongoing threats. Viral outbreaks and wildfires both introduce harmful particles into the eyes and airways; they can all be blocked by appropriate barriers. The difference is the source: Pathogens travel mainly in people’s boats, making crowds and crummy indoor air travel some of the greatest dangers; the fire and its smoke, the things that come from the ashes, meanwhile, can burn and be moved by the external winds that we receive during viral epidemics. Heat traps air and all kinds of pollutants—among them, carbon monoxide, which can kill people by starving them of oxygen, and a group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. But the first danger is that the best parts of soot, ash, and dust, good enough to be carried long distances until it reaches an unexpected face.
When inhaled, the fine particles that the EPA tracks using a metric known as PM2.5, can enter the air and possibly the bloodstream. The flecks to annoy the moist tissues that surround the nose, mouth, lungs, and eyes; they cause inflammation, cause itchiness and itching. Chronic exposure to them has been linked to heart and lung problems, and the risks are especially the elite for people with chronic diseases—burdens concentrated among people of color and the poor—as well as the elderly and children.
But N95s and many other advanced masks have their roots in the environment; they were specially designed to filter particles that travel through space. And they are amazingly good at their job. Jose-Luis Jimenez, an aerosol scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, recently tested his reaction with an N95 strapped to his face. Using the company’s tests, they measured the product on the outside of the mask, assessing the amount of material produced through the device and the area around his nose and mouth. According to the quantity, he told me, “it removes 99.99 … it worked very well. ” On larger scales, protective math plays out: Appropriate masks can preventing hospitalizations due to smoking; education proves their importance as a fire extinguishers.
The key, Jimenez told me, is choosing the right mask and letting it contour to your face. Professionals in this field are professionally tested to prevent contamination from entering any openings. Surgical masks, cloth masks, or any disposable devices not designed to filter particles will not do the trick, they are still better than no cover at all. (If that sounds familiar, it should; viruses or smokers, “masks don’t care how small things are,” Marr told me. “They care about how big they are.”)
N95 masks are not effective protection. They don’t protect the eyes, and they don’t do much to block carbon monoxide and other pollutants from wildfires. (Here’s why: Letting gas through masks is how we continue to breathe while wearing them.) But gases are volatile and dissipate quickly; for Americans hundreds or thousands of miles from the source of the smoke, “it’s going to be an issue that really affects us,” Marr told me. Even in parts of the new York and Pennsylvania where PM2.5 has reached dangerous levels, carbon-monoxide levels have remained low.
Given how far the masking issue has come, the masking advice will not be universally accepted. Less than a month after the United States government declared a state of emergency in the wake of COVID-19, people are tired of face masks and other mitigation measures. And we’re quickly entering the year where wearing polymer clay to your face can be miserable, especially in the humid northeast. But when it comes to preventing the harm of smoke, experts often see masks as a secondary line of defense. The first priority is to try to reduce any exposure – which, in this case, means staying indoors with doors and windows tightly closed, especially for people who are at high risk. Paula Olsiewski, a health researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, also recommends running any filters available; Air conditioners, portable air purifiers, and DIY filters all help.
It’s a good time, experts told me, to remember the difference between filtering and good air, or the addition of water to convert old air. Both are important and stable in the fight against respiratory viruses. But in the case of wildfires, fresh air can really do it add it harm, Jimenez told me, by allowing more smoke. Meanwhile, indoor air quality – the old enemy of COVID – is a smoke prevention partner. Masks come for anyone who has to go outside in an area where the air is bad, say, above 150 or so.
The move could be especially counterintuitive to people who have long stopped hiding from COVID-19, or who are doing so, because the rules don’t have a mesh. Through the curved guide of mask everywhere to mask until you are vaccinated to in fact, the mask after the vaccine you too to the only mask in the house, Americans don’t really hit a solid chord with this practice. Inertia may be strongest on the East Coast, which has been largely protected from the wildfire epidemic that tends to plague the West. (This puts the US behind other countries, especially in East Asia, where covering the face against viruses and pollutants indoors and outdoors has long been common; (although in California, shortages of N95 and HEPA are not uncommon.)
That said, our COVID-centric views on masking are always up for grabs. Wildfires – and the spread of viruses, as a result – are expected to become more common in the future, even in areas where they have never been. And for all their fatigue with COVID, Americans now know more about, and often have more access to, masks than they did a few years ago. Wildfires are not nice story, but perhaps a masked response to them would be. Smoke does, from a public health perspective, have one thing in common, Olsiewski told me: It’s visible and dangerous in ways that a small virus isn’t. He told me: “People feel that their air is not clean. It will take ash and fog to break through the divisions around the masks. But this obvious threat can cause a small crack.
This article is part of the Atlantic Planet series sponsored by HHMI’s Science and Educational Media Group.