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Can COVID masks protect against Washington wildfire smoke?

(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

This past weekend wasn’t exactly ideal as residents of Washington state not only had to wear masks around other people due to coronavirus, but also because of the smoke outside. How dangerous is the smoke and what kind of masks do we need? Mercer Island MD Dr. Gordon Cohen joined Seattle’s Morning News to discuss.

Is the smoke just dangerous for people who have some preexisting condition, like asthma? Or is it dangerous for anyone to breathe?

“First of all, we would describe the conditions as being hazy, and haze is really one of the most basic forms of air pollution. So the size of the particles in the air is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. And usually it’s considered to be small particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter that pose the greatest problems because they can actually get deep into your lungs,” he said.

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“Even healthy people could experience health effects from polluted air, and usually it relates to respiratory irritation because we’re breathing it in, or it could affect our eyes and things like that,” Dr. Cohen continued. “But high air pollution or high haze can cause immediate health problems, and these include things like aggravating any cardiovascular or respiratory illnesses. It can create added stress to your heart and lungs so that they have to work harder to supply the body with oxygen. And it can damage cells within our respiratory system, not just the cells that are deep in our lungs, but actually the cells that line our airways.”

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Dr. Cohen says long-term exposure can impact lung function, and can lead to the development of diseases such as asthma or bronchitis, and in some cases, even cancer. But who is actually susceptible?

“It’s not just people who are sick or have preexisting conditions, it can actually be otherwise healthy people. People who exercise, athletes who are outside running, they’re at risk,” he said. “So it’s a whole variety of people who are actually at risk from air pollution.”

Getting filters for your COVID masks

Regular, cloth COVID masks aren’t ideal for blocking out the types of particles in hazy air, but they can be retrofitted with special filters, says Dr. Cohen.

“The thing is there’s actually specific filters that are made for the purpose of breathing this type of air, and they’re called PM 2.5 filters and they don’t have to go into a fitted mask like a N95 mask. They could go into the type of masks that everybody else is wearing,” he said. “You could actually buy one of these filters, and they last a long time, unlike the N95 masks that sort of wear out. These filters can last one to two years. So you could buy one of these filters and put it inside of your cloth mask and filter out the particular matter that’s in the air.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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