Can COVID masks protect against Washington wildfire smoke?

Sep 14, 2020, 12:26 PM | Updated: 1:33 pm
smoke masks...
(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
(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.

Smoke to ‘remain an issue’ in Seattle area at least through Monday

“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.”

Former WA AG: No legal issue with Seattle’s anti-racism training

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.

Dave Ross on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM
  • listen to dave rossTune in to KIRO Radio weekdays at 5am for Dave Ross on Seattle's Morning News.

Dave's Commentary

Dave Ross

Inslee, swear...
Dave Ross

Ross: Let them swear they will tell nothing but the truth

My daughter heard yesterday’s commentary about Inslee’s proposed law to discourage candidates from lying about elections, and came up with an alternative.
1 day ago
health care workers, hospital...
MyNorthwest Staff

Mercer Island MD: New guidelines for health workers could expose ‘vulnerable people’

Dr. Gordon Cohen, Mercer Island MD, comments on the new guidelines from the CDC that allow COVID-positive health care workers to return to work.
2 days ago
emergency powers...
Dave Ross

Ross: Gov. Inslee’s bill to punish lying politicians may be asking for trouble

A growing number of reasonable people are questioning Governor Inslee’s bill (Senate Bill 5843) to punish lying politicians.
2 days ago
MyNorthwest Staff

UW Virology head: Not yet to the peak of omicron in Washington state

In Washington state, at least in the local population that UW Medicine is caring for, it's not yet safe to say that omicron has peaked.
4 days ago
vaccine mandates...
MyNorthwest Staff

Former state AG: OSHA’s COVID vaccine mandate was too broad

Former state Attorney General Rob McKenna provides insight into the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on President Joe Biden's vaccine mandates.
5 days ago
Rhodes, Capitol...
Dave Ross

Ross: It looks like the ‘tourists’ were up to something after all

Every American should read the Justice Department indictment of the Oath Keepers who participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
5 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]

COVID Vaccine is a Game-Changer for Keeping our Kids Healthy

Snohomish Health District SPONSORED — Cheers to the parents and guardians who keep their kids safe and healthy. The dad who cooks a meal with something green in it, even though he’s tired and drive-thru burgers were tempting. The mom who calms down the little one who loudly and resolutely does NOT want to brush […]
Experience Anacortes

Coastal Christmas Celebration Week in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.

Delayed-Onset PTSD: Signs and Symptoms

Lakeside-Milam Recovery Centers SPONSORED — You’re probably familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder. Often abbreviated as PTSD, this condition is diagnosed when a person experiences a set of symptoms for at least a month after a traumatic event. However, for some people, these issues take longer to develop. This results in a diagnosis of delayed-onset PTSD […]

Medicare open enrollment ends Dec. 7. Free unbiased help is here!

Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner SPONSORED — Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, also called the Annual Election Period, is Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. During this time, people enrolled in Medicare can: Switch from Original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan and vice versa. Join, drop or switch a Part D prescription drug plan, […]
Can COVID masks protect against Washington wildfire smoke?