Will wearing a mask outside help me with bad air quality in N.J. from wildfire smoke?
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Will wearing a mask outside help me with bad air quality in N.J. from wildfire smoke?

Jan 26, 2024

A woman wearing a face mask travels near Newark Avenue in Jersey City as an air quality alert lingers throughout New Jersey amid the negative impacts of Canadian wildfire smoke.Steven Rodas | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Smoke from Canadian wildfires has lingered in New Jersey enough for the dial on the state's air quality index to hit "unhealthy" levels Wednesday afternoon.

Thicker air, a tangerine hue to the sky and difficulty seeing as close as a few blocks away have been reported throughout parts of the state. With conditions expected to worsen by Wednesday evening, residents may be wondering: Will a mask protect me from the smoke?

"The typical cloth or surgical masks that we were wearing for COVID, those help for the water droplets, for disease, but aren't going to be so good here. But something is better than nothing," said Greg Pope, a professor of earth and environmental science at Montclair State University.

"If somebody is sensitive to this smoke, some kind of mask or even a bandana (may help). That's what firefighters will do," said Pope, noting that face masks designed to filter air are preferred.

READ MORE: Where to buy KN95 and N95 masks that will be delivered quickly

Air quality has plummeted across much of the northeast as smoke from wildfires in Canada moves south. Poor air quality can be hazardous. Before spending time outdoors, check the air quality forecast. Make sure you aren't doing yourself more harm than good. https://t.co/CVx9g8Hm1q pic.twitter.com/aSPUS4LU92

The National Weather Service has issued an air quality alert for the entire state of New Jersey. In addition to the alert, which currently lasts until midnight Thursday, the service suggested people limit their outdoor activities and wear a mask if you have to go outside.

"Paper ‘comfort’ or ‘dust’ masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire smoke," warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state's health department added in its latest guidance that the paper comfort and dust masks will not protect your lungs from smoke and N95 masks will provide some protection "if worn properly."

Substantial protection, Pope said, comes from "high-end filtering masks."

KN95 and N95 masks are able to a filter up to 95% of particulates that are 0.3 microns or larger from the air, helping to screen the current unhealthy air quality, experts said. The width of a single human hair is about 60 micrometers, according to California's health department.

The CDC said children, those who are pregnant and anyone with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease could be "especially at risk" from the harmful state of the air. The agency notes wildfire smoke exposure for sensitive people can result in coughing, trouble breathing, wheezing, asthma attacks, headaches, chest pain, scratchy throat and runny nose.

READ MORE: Is the wildfire smoke bad for dogs in N.J.?

Heavy and prolonged exposure to particulate pollution, which can result from wildfires, in some cases can mean significant health effects like strokes and lung cancer.

Pope said one specific weather event, such as wildfire smoke from hundreds of miles away in Canada hovering throughout New Jersey, can't be tied to human-caused climate change. Still, he emphasized, scientists will study in case a trend arises especially now that wildfire season is longer due to the warming of the planet.

Might New Jersey be in store for more smoky air in the future and should we have our masks at the ready?

"It's hard to say. It is possible," Pope said.

It will depend on weather patterns and how the wildfire seasons go. While not as severe, Canada wildfire smoke made its way here on two other occasions already this year — from Nova Scotia, Alberta and Manitoba, according to the professor.

"Not this bad, but we’ve had the smoke a couple times earlier this year. We’ve had it in previous years," Pope said. "So, it probably will happen again. As to when and where, can't be said yet."

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Steven Rodas may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @stevenrodasnj.

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