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Wildfire Smoke Masks Have ‘More Risks Than Benefits,’ According To Sacramento County Health Officials

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Smoke from the Camp Fire in Butte County fills the air in Sacramento, 90 miles away.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Editor's note: We've updated this story with links to resources on how to properly wear masks and other information on wildfire smoke and health.

Update 1 p.m., Nov. 16

The city of Sacramento says it has received an additional 200,000 new N95 masks, which can be picked up at fire stations. The city is also distributing masks to unsheltered people.

Update 12:52 p.m., Nov. 15

The city of Sacramento is ending its smoke mask distribution program, initiated Sunday in response to unhealthy air quality following the Camp wildfire.

City officials in a press release said they've been unable to get more masks from the California Office of Emergency Services and California Department of Public Health.

"The City’s request for more masks is routed through the County of Sacramento, and the County Public Health Officer released a statement earlier this week stating the use of the masks in Sacramento for the Camp Fire smoke is not recommended," the press release reads.

City fire stations have handed out 67,000 masks to people who have asked for them and will continue to do so as supplies last.

Original story:

Sacramento County's top health official says the risks of wearing a mask to protect against breathing in smoke may outweigh the benefits.

City officials may have been premature in handing them out to the public this weekend, the county also said.

On Sunday, city of Sacramento officials announced residents could pick up free N95 model masks at fire stations to guard against the smoke settling in the valley from the Camp Fire in Butte County.

Daniel Bowers, the city's director of emergency management, said the city wasn't advising citizens get a mask and recommended people should stay indoors and limit physical activity.

With unhealthy air quality levels throughout the region, the city ran out of masks on Monday as people rushed to protect themselves. Officials said Tuesday they were in the process of restocking.

But Dr. Peter Beilenson, director of the Department of Health Services, said the county isn't recommending people use the type of masks the city has been handing out.

He said the masks, if not fitted properly, can actually increase breathing problems by not releasing carbon dioxide. (Here are suggestions from Cal OSHA and cal OES on how to wear the masks, and resources from the California Department of Public Health on how to deal with wildfire smoke).

"Unless you really know what you're doing and have worn these masks before, there are more risks than benefits," Beilenson said. "Over the weekend, [the city] may have jumped the gun a little bit."

Beilenson said that by far the most important thing people can do is to stay indoors, and avoid exerting themselves if they have to go outside. He said sensitive groups such as children or seniors should limit any time outdoors, but healthy people should be fine during short periods outside.

"We're already down in the unhealthy [air quality] range, which doesn't sound great, but it's down from the very unhealthy or hazardous range that the Yosemite fire was at," Beilenson said, referencing the poor air quality this summer during the Ferguson Fire. "So unless you have emphysema and you normally have trouble walking a block or so, certainly that's not going to be a problem for most people."

Spokesperson Keith Wade said the city is aware of the county advisory and recommends people follow it, but will continue to hand out masks, as well.

"We're advising people to follow the county health advisory that they put out," Wade said. "Our No. 1 message is that people should stay indoors and limit their outside activity, but we're having masks made available to all citizens at city fire stations."

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