To wear a mask or not this bushfire season?

By Amy Sarcevic
Tuesday, 21 January, 2020

To wear a mask or not this bushfire season?

If you’re a healthcare professional, you’ve likely been asked this question — or some variation of it — countless times this bushfire season: is it worth wearing a mask or not?

Renowned respiration expert and UTS Research Professor Brian Oliver said there are two important things to keep in mind in answering this question.

“First, there are different kinds of masks that have very different functions,” he said.

“Surgical masks are virtually useless when it comes to bushfire smoke. These are only really helpful in a medical setting to prevent the spread of pathogens.

“Other masks, like N95 respirators (aka P2 masks), can be useful — but again there are different varieties.

“Some are designed for industrial applications to prevent the inhalation of fine particles (like silica) and others for medical uses (to protect during viral pandemics).

“Others have extra filters to eliminate dangerous toxins (like formaldehyde).

“It can be difficult to know which mask, if any, is appropriate, as bushfire smoke contains both volatile toxins and fine particles. None of the masks are designed for, or tested for, use in bushfires.”

Confusingly, these different varieties also come under the same name, making it hard to differentiate, he warned.

The second point to consider is that endorsing masks may lead to adverse consequences — encouraging people to spend more time outdoors and increasing their exposure to the potentially harmful air.

“We don’t want to inadvertently convey the message that if you wear a mask it’s safe to be outdoors when the air quality is poor. And this might be how people react if mask usage becomes more widespread.

“Really, people should be staying indoors as much as possible and wearing the (appropriate) mask should they have no choice but to be outside. No mask is perfect and they’re only required to remove 95% of synthetic particles in safety tests,” he said.

But, Prof Oliver concedes that something is usually better than nothing (except in the case of surgical masks).

So, a mask which is designed for toxin filtration is probably better than no mask, in terms of reducing particle intake.

“It’s a grey area and there’s still much we don’t know. My advice is to say ‘yes’ to masks — but be specific with your recommendation and make sure patients know where to source the right ones.

“Importantly, let patients know that the best protection they’ll find for the time being is staying indoors.

“We still lack research on how this fire season will affect our medium- and long-term health, but we do know that asthma attacks and other acute effects have already skyrocketed.

“Until we know more, it’s important to protect ourselves in whatever way we can,” he concluded.

Image credit: © Grunditz

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