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Confused About Whether Or Not To Wear A Breathing Mask? You're Not Alone

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

Update 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. 

Original story:

Local health officials in the Sacramento region are recommending different approaches to the public in dealing with the terrible air quality from the major wildfires burning throughout the state.

Since Sunday, the city of Sacramento has handed out 67,000 free N95 respirator masks at fire stations and in homeless camps to help people protect themselves from smoky air.  

But the distribution program will end once the current stash is depleted, city officials announced Thursday. They said in a blog post that they were unable to acquire more masks from state agencies because the county does not want them dispensed to the general public.

N95 Masks: What You Need To Know:

  • The best way to avoid bad air is to stay indoors.
  • Masks are recommended only for people who must be outdoors for long periods.
  • N95 masks can provide significant protection against particles in smoke, but not potentially harmful gases.
  • They are not effective unless fitted properly.
  • They don’t work well for people with facial hair.
  • They are too large to be effective for most children.
  • N95 masks can be harmful for some people with respiratory conditions.
  • Other masks, such as dust masks and surgical masks, don’t keep particles out.
Sources: Sac County Public Health, Yolo County Public Health, California Department of Public Health, UC Davis Air Quality Research Center, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District said smoke from the Camp wildfire could stay in the Sacramento region into early next week. Air quality was rated "very unhealthy" Thursday.

But earlier this week Dr. Peter Beilenson, director of the county’s Department of Health Services, released a statement advising people not to wear the N95 masks.

"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 there’s no reason to give the masks out to everyone, but the county is trying to acquire additional masks for people who need them, such as workers who are outdoors for hours at a time.

Both the city and county say the best way to avoid unhealthy air is to stay indoors. The city declined to answer questions about the county’s statement, or about the end of the distribution program.

There are mixed opinions about who should be wearing N95 masks. The California Department of Public Health notes that they can provide significant protection against particles in smoke, but only if property fitted to the wearer’s face.

They also note that the masks can give people a false sense of security and make them think it’s safe to exercise outside. And they can be harmful to some people with respiratory conditions because they make the lungs work harder to breathe.

Beilenson added that the masks carry an added risk because they force people to “rebreathe” their own CO2.

Tony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis, said CO2 is a non-issue.

“If you’re feeling short of breath, then you can take the mask off,” he said. “You’re going to know that, because you’re going to feel like you’re not getting enough oxygen.”

He said anyone who hasn’t gotten their mask fitted properly likely isn’t seeing much benefit. They won’t do anything for people with facial hair, which creates space between the mask and the skin, and they’re too large for most children.

But even if the mask isn’t working properly he said it’s unlikely to do healthy adults any harm. It’s also not really necessary.

“This hopefully is a relatively short episode, and it will clear up,” Wexler said. “If you’re of normal, good health, it’s not that big a deal.”

Yolo County’s public health department recommends the N95 masks only for people who work outside or must be outside for another reason. The city of Rocklin recently stopped giving out N95 masks en masse on Placer County’s recommendation.

Still, cities across California are handing them out.

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