The air is brown — should I wear a mask?

Concertgoers at the Hollywood Bowl wear face masks amid the smoke of the Sand Fire.
Concertgoers at the Hollywood Bowl wear face masks amid the smoke of the Sand Fire. Courtesy of Betsy Sullenger/Used with permission

It's tough to accessorize for an airpocalypse.

When wildfires turn blue skies into browned-out hellscapes, there's only one accessory that fits for safety and style — a mask.

With California facing a year-round fire season, questions about air quality have darkened some decisions about going outside. Particulate matter matters, and so does airborne debris, but how bad is bad? Are we at mask-level bad? Do you need to wear one?

We asked air quality specialists, health officials, agencies, medical professionals and mask companies.

Here's the short, conditional, answer: No agency endorses the practice of public mask-wearing, but if it makes you feel better to wear one, you could grab a single-use N95 respirator from the hardware store in a pinch. You might not need it, or like wearing it, or put it on correctly, but you could try if you absolutely have to be outside. Which you absolutely shouldn’t be.

Follow us down the dusty rabbit hole of face masks.

Worst case scenario

The worst-case scenario for exposure to wildfire smoke is premature death, according to a report on the California Department of Health's website. To be fair, premature death is worst-case scenario for every single day you wake up, wildfire or not.

Mostly, exposure to wildfire smoke causes breathing and eye irritation as well as sicknesses like bronchitis, and it can make pre-existing conditions like asthma worse, according to the report. You also might cough, wheeze or have an increased amount of mucous.

What the AQMD says

The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s go-to precaution is to leave the area of a fire. If that’s not possible, there are other options, such as staying indoors while running a re-circulating air conditioner and refraining from vigorous outdoor exercise. But wearing a face mask? AQMD doesn’t typically recommend it.

“Residents sometimes ask about the use of masks when wildfire smoke is present, and you have to be cautious about the use of masks, many of them will do nothing at all to protect you from the microscopic particles in wildfire smoke,” AQMD spokesperson Sam Atwood told KPCC.

He said flimsy masks, like surgical masks or construction masks, can help keep big particles of ash from causing discomfort, but that’s about all they do.

Masks that do provide protection are called “particulate respirators … They do not provide a good seal for men who have a beard or a mustache, they don’t work very well for children who have smaller faces, and they have to be very well-fitted around your face with both straps placed around the back of your head,” Atwood said.

Enter your zip code on their website for the current air quality index reading.

What the specialist says

L.A.-based Dr. David Warburton heads a center that researches impacts of pollution on health across a lifespan. Right now he’s studying Mongolia. He told KPCC that people there wear face masks, but it is “pretty futile … It makes you feel better, but it doesn’t really do much to protect you, unfortunately.”

Warburton said that the L.A. basin is one area where air pollution has greatly improved over the past 20 years, "except when there’s acute effect like a fire, which does give you massive amounts of particulates in the air." In that case, wearing a basic face mask can provide some sort of protection.

"A face mask will help you with very large carbon particulates," Warburton said. "You’ll notice if you’re in a very polluted environment, the outside of the face mask does go black — that tells you the stuff didn’t get in your lung. But unless it’s an industrial-grade, close-fitting face mask with activated charcoal, you’re really not going to do much for the gases or for the very small particulates ... if you want to go to zero in terms of inhalation of particulates, you really need an industrial grade mask."

What the CDC says

The Centers for Disease Control is not particularly keen on recommending everybody stock up on respirators, either. Why? In short, to use them properly, you have to know how to put them on the right way — something that may be more complicated than you'd think.

“Just because you can get one at a hardware store doesn’t mean when you put it on, you’re going to be appropriately protected from these particulates from wildland smoke,” said William Haskell, physical scientist at the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory, which is under the umbrella of the CDC.

If it isn't on correctly people will be drawing in air through the gaps, not the filter.

Also, the CDC focuses on occupational protection, while public use falls under the purview of the FDA, according to Maryann D’Alessandro, director of the NPPTL.

What the FDA says

The FDA punts it back to the CDC, recommending that we contact the NPPTL, the same agency where Haskell and D’Alessandro work.

"While the FDA has cleared certain N95 respirators for use by the general public in public health medical emergencies, N95 respirators intended for use in an environmental disaster are not within the FDA's purview," Fallon Smith, a spokesperson for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, wrote in an emailed statement.

Smith also said that the CDC does not generally recommend face masks and respirators for use in home or community settings.

And finally...

What a mask company says

Bay-area based Vogmask is one company that’s working to make protective masks chic. The company's product is certified by the Korean government’s version of the FDA (and other agencies) and conforms to U.S. NIOSH N99 filter efficiency. See the specs.

Their largest markets are China, India and Southeast Asia, but Vogmask partner Wendover Brown told KPCC the mask market in the U.S. is seeing customers purchasing to help with allergies, pollen exposure and even smoke from wildfires.

Says their Facebook page: "Combining fashion and function, vogmasks are available in children's sizes with superior fit, comfort, and filtering efficiency. Vogmask also offers styles (indicated by CV) with N99 filter, active carbon filter, and exhale valve for easy breathing."

In summary

<facepalm>

Perhaps Vogmask said it best in this cryptically optimistic if not outwardly apocalyptic message on its website about how masks are "for now and the future, rendered modern to awaken public hope, to express the public self, and to emerge from the trance of accepting an inherited future."

Let's all take a deep breath.

We will update this impossibly circular story should any agency decide to present clear guidelines for public mask wearing amid wildfire smoke.

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