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Is That Mask Really Protecting You From The Smoke?

The persistent haze of smoke from the wildfires burning around the Northwest has led many people to wear face masks to protect their lungs. But health officials say many of those masks aren’t doing what the wearers think they are.

As the days of thick, smoky air drag on, you’re seeing more people wearing those little paper masks you can get at the hardware store. Dr. Jim Shames has seen them, too. But, he says, while those masks may filter out some of the ash that’s floating around people need more protection than that.

“It’s not doing anything for what we feel are the particles that cause the major health problems,” he says.

Shames is the Medical Director for Jackson County Health and Human Services. The particles he’s most concerned about are the microscopic ones, less than two-and-a-half microns wide.

“They drift all the way down into your alveoli, the smallest airways in your lungs," he says. "And that’s where they cause the irritation, that’s where they stimulate asthma, they put more stress on the heart and the lungs.”

Shames says long exposure to these tiny particles may also cause permanent damage.

You can get respirators that will filter out particles that small – they’re rated as NIOSH-95 or NIOSH -100 — but they’re tricky to fit properly and if you’ve got facial hair, they won’t make a good seal at all.

Shames says it’s best to avoid going outdoors when the air is unhealthy, especially for children, elders and folks with respiratory problems. If you must go out, he says, get the appropriate respirator and learn how to use it effectively.

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<p>Smoke from the Milli Fire as seen from Sisters, Oregon, Friday, Aug. 18, 2017.</p>

Randy Layton


Smoke from the Milli Fire as seen from Sisters, Oregon, Friday, Aug. 18, 2017.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.