Choosing safe masks to ward off hazardous, lingering California wildfire smoke

california wildfire smoke n95
A family wears face masks as they walk through the smoke filled streets after the Thomas wildfire swept through Ventura California, on December 6, 2017. After a series of wildfires broke out on November 8, California officials advised residents to wear N95 respirators to protect their lungs from harmful particles in the air caused by wildfires. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Confusion abounds surrounding the best masks to wear outdoors in the lingering California wildfire smoke, as public officials have given conflicting advice as the high health hazard continues.

The air quality, categorized as "very unhealthy" on Friday, is likely to remain the same over the weekend, according to the Bay Area Quality Management District, which has monitored the devastating Camp Fire wildfire, which killed 71 people. That number is expected to grow.

The Associated Press reports late Friday that more one thousand people are now missing and unaccounted for in the Camp fire around Paradise -- a significant increase from the 631 reported missing yesterday.

To play it safe, people already suffering from breathing problems should get a doctor's recommendation before selecting and wearing a mask, reports SFGate, which has extensively covered the nearby devastating Camp Fire.

The more expensive masks marked "P95," "R95" or "N95" can filter out "up to 95 percent of small smoke particles," but they are usually more expensive than everyday dust masks, according to the California Department of Public Health. Those with higher ratings, such as "P100," "R100" or "N100," filter out even more particles.

Scarves, bandannas, tissues, and any mask not marked "N95" or better reportedly do not help.

"Surgical masks that trap small particles are designed to filter air coming out of the wearer's mouth and do not provide a good seal to prevent inhalation of small particles or gases in smoke," advises the California Department of Public Health.

Some masks filter out bigger particles while others filter out smaller particles. At any rate, public officials warn that regular dust masks fail to filter tiny particles and may not fit well. Surgical masks better filter exhalation, but not inhalation of smoke particles or gases. Paper hardware store masks tend to trap large particles but fail to protect lungs adequately.

Furthermore, a "Mask use may give the wearer a false sense of security, which might encourage too much physical activity and time spent outdoors. Also, wearing a mask may actually be harmful to some people with heart or lung disease because it can make the lungs work harder to breathe," SFGate reports.

California Department of Public Health advises that an effective mask must fit properly and a provide a good seal around the person's nose and mouth. Still, some may not protect the wearer from irritating gases from the wildfire smoke:

"Wearing a mask may actually be harmful to some people with heart or lung disease because it can make the lungs work harder to breathe."

Again, consulting a doctor is the best bet.

Masks rarely fit small children, so toddlers should stay indoors to prevent inhaling harmful smoke. Asthmatics, people with other respiratory problems and children should avoid outdoor activities.

Customers clamored to by mostly "N95" masks at Bay Area hardware stores Thursday.

By Friday, SFGate reported that " N95 masks are becoming the Bay Area's collective accessory as air quality skyrockets to the most unhealthy, unprecedented levels the Bay Area has ever seen due to the Camp Fire smoke."

Choosing safe masks to ward off hazardous, lingering California wildfire smoke | U.S.
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