N95 masks, HEPA filters: What you need in Mass. to stay healthy in the smoke, doctor says


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May 17, 2023

N95 masks, HEPA filters: What you need in Mass. to stay healthy in the smoke, doctor says

It’s time to pull out your N95 mask and that medical-grade air purifier you

It's time to pull out your N95 mask and that medical-grade air purifier you bought in the early days of COVID, according to Massachusetts medical professionals after air quality alerts and yellow skies have taken over the Bay State this week.

Dr. Brian Cruz, Senior Medical Director for PhysicianOne, an urgent medical care facility with 26 locations throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, said there have been "plenty" of people in the Bay State who have sought medical treatment for respiratory-related illness due to the air quality.

"There's been plenty of people who have asthma exacerbations," said Cruz, who said he sees patients mainly at the Franklin PhysicianOne location and oversees quality assurance for the entire company.

"We have seen people in our centers that have been complaining more that their asthma hasn't been under control, and because of this, they’re like, ‘I need to use to my inhaler more; I need some other medications to try to control this,’" Cruz said.

Others considered to be in at-risk groups include children and teens, older adults and people with heart and lung diseases, according to AirNow.gov site to check local air quality levels.

The smoke particles are small enough where a regular surgical or cloth mask will not be effective to mitigate the flow into your lungs, Cruz said, stating that an N95 mask was the only effective face-covering option.

However, the particles are not small enough to enter the water system or into most plants, Cruz added, meaning those resources are safe to still consume with no longterm concerns.

"If you talk about like animals — cows, those kind of things — it wouldn't be in any of the meats that are consumed," Cruz added.

The doctor said all people, even those not considered at-risk, should try to stay indoors as much as possible, and advised investing in a medical-grade air purifier for their home.

"If you get some of the air particles inside, it's going to be about having a HEPA filter in your house," Cruz stated.

A HEPA filter, or a high efficiency particulate air filter, is a device used in medical settings to ensure 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any other airborne particles are removed from the air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) site.

"[A HEPA filter] will definitely circulate out most of those particles; they can be very cheap, or go relatively expensive. Hopefully, people invested in some during COVID, because we learned that they helped with those viruses as well," Cruz explained.

However, the microscopic particles aren't the only part of the smoke that causes concern, the doctor said. Gaseous matter from the wildfire smoke consists of carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are both hazardous to a person's health.

"Inhaling a large amount of carbon monoxide can cause headaches, dizziness, weakness, vomiting, chest pain, confusion, and even death especially if the air carbon monoxide level is high and the person is in a closed enclosure. The treatment for these patients is to remove them from the area and give them oxygen," said Cruz.

"Being exposed to PAHs for a long period of time — months to years — can increase a person's risk for lung cancer, bladder cancer and gastrointestinal cancers," the doctor added.

But the doctor stated health concerns for the general population were low if the conditions were to only last for a few days.

"A couple days is probably not going to be that bad over a lifetime," Cruz stated. "It's when it's day in and day out; weeks, months, that's when it becomes very harmful. But in the short term, it's going to be more harmful for those at risk."

The doctor added that an air conditioner would not be enough to fully filter the harmful matter, as most air conditioning systems are not medical grade.

"These are very, very small particles, so any filter in there is not going to filter out those particles. The only true way to do it is to have these high grade medical grade filtration systems — fortunately, when this kind of settles down and as you move the air through your house or your apartment, there's gonna be less and less," the doctor said.

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