To my profound regret, I have been spending as much time as possible indoors this summer. Depending on the Air Quality Index (AQI), even a few minutes outside can leave me with stinging eyes, a tickled throat, and phlegm. If I stay outside even longer, I develop a headache, I sneeze, and my chest tightens. Still, being inside all the time isn’t practical. We are trying to keep a garden alive, and trips to the grocery store and the gym are necessary to help break up the cabin fever.
When I venture out on these occasions, I notice that most people are either wearing their white, disposable N95 masks with the yellow straps (think: hospital), or they aren’t wearing a mask at all. Seldom have I seen people wearing the kind of respirator you see me wearing in the picture above, so I want to address a few of the reasons people may not be taking the plunge into full-on Storm Trooper life.
First-off, the mask I’m wearing is more expensive than those N95 particle masks. At about $20 for the mask and $20 for a pair of filter cartridges, the more intense respirator is a commitment. The filters will need to be replaced from time to time, so that’s an additional $20 for every replacement. However, I made the decision to spring for a mask because I see it as an investment in my health, not just for this summer, but for what could be many more years filled with smoke, dust, and other air pollution as climate change progresses.
Secondly, these masks can seem like a bit much. (I think my generation would say they're a bit “extra.”) When I first started wearing my respirator in public, I figured people were looking at me and thinking, “Wow! Look at that Doomsday-er over there. This isn’t the frickin’ apocalypse!” After a solid month of smoke, though, some people seem intrigued by the advantages of a more effective and secure mask. As I carried my mask around the Ashland Public Library the other day, a man stopped me and wanted to know what kind it was. I showed it to him, told him where I got it. “Does it work better than these paper ones that don’t seem to do anything?” he asked me, referring to the N95 white-and-yellow masks.
The stranger’s curiosity leads me to the third reason I suspect these cartridge respirators are less common: folks just don’t know about them. The only reason I knew that a better mask existed than the N95 disposable mask was because I met someone at the Oregon Eclipse Festival last year who wore a cartridge respirator to protect his lungs against the dislodged prairie dust. When wildfires in eastern Oregon engulfed the festival in smoke halfway through the week, my partner and I tracked down the mask-bearing friend and bombarded him with questions. We envied his preparedness (and his ability to take a deep breath without coughing) and knew that we wanted to be ready for air quality threats in the future.
Fast-forward to this summer. The smoke rolled in and stayed, so my partner and I started researching cartridge respirators. The culmination of that research was a trip to Home Depot, where we spent thirty minutes between two different aisles (you would think these masks would all be in one place, but they weren’t) comparing prices, comfort, and filter capabilities. In the end, I chose the thing that fit the best and seemed to offer the best protection.
See the pink pieces on either side? Those are the replaceable filter cartridges.
The mask itself is a NIOSH 6000 series, and the cartridges are NIOSH 3M 60923. They are a kind of hybrid filter that protects against both particulates (microscopic particles that can lodge deeply in the lungs) and certain vapors and gases. The filters are also certified N100, meaning that, if used correctly, the filter should capture 100 percent of the particulates in the air. Though most of the government-based information I have found advises people to use an N95 respirator (like the hospital masks) if they must be out and about on a smoky day, that 5 percent of particles entering your lungs increases as the AQI increases – meaning that at some point, an N95 particle mask might not be strong enough to offer protection. In addition, the N95 paper masks only trap particulates, not vapors and gases.
If you're thinking about upgrading your white and yellow N95, I would recommend taking the time to research what respirator is best for your needs, and keep in mind that sensitive groups (such as children, older folks, and people with heart and respiratory conditions) may not benefit from masks and could even be harmed by wearing them.
Stay tuned to the Smoky Skies edition of True Nature Filter for an apocalyptic bike ride, an air purifier discussion, and a blue skies beach escape!