Treasure Valley air ‘very unhealthy.’ So should you really wear a mask?

Do face masks really protect you from smoky air?

Colby Adams, an environmental health expert with the Idaho Division of Public Health, discusses the health benefits -- or lack thereof -- of wearing masks over the mouth and nose to filter wildfire smoke.
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Colby Adams, an environmental health expert with the Idaho Division of Public Health, discusses the health benefits -- or lack thereof -- of wearing masks over the mouth and nose to filter wildfire smoke.

On Wednesday, Idaho air quality took a turn for the worse, veering into “very unhealthy” territory days after wildfire smog settled into the Treasure Valley.

Exactly how unhealthy is our air? If you’re an adult in good health, you don’t have much to worry about, according to officials with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Public Health.

Colby Adams, environmental health director for the division, said the only damage most of us will suffer from a few days or weeks of exposure to wildfire smoke is irritation.

“Short-term exposures to the smoke are going to be mostly irritating for folks, so you’re going to get the eye irritation, maybe a sore throat, scratchy throat, cough. And those will mostly go away when the smoke goes away,” he said.

It’s vulnerable people — those with heart and lung conditions, the elderly and children — who should focus especially on remaining indoors while the air quality is poor, Adams said. That’s the first line of defense that DHW suggests for everyone, actually.

For those who have to spend time outside, certain face masks can help but the benefits aren’t significant, Adams said. Run-of-the-mill surgical masks made from paper won’t protect lungs from the harmful particles in smoke.

“The masks that most people use, the ones that are the hardware masks that only have one strap, those really are not protecting you from the smoke exposure,” Adams explained.

This model run by Washington State University shows the air quality prediction for the Northwest on Thursday and Friday.

Instead, opt for a particulate respirator — if you really need one.

“We would not advocate that everyone go out and get a respirator,” Adams said. “Yes, it may give you the sense that you’re being protected, but unless you’re wearing it correctly, you’re not getting that protection. So it’s hard to say that it’s better to just wear the mask.”

The masks can be found at many hardware stores and pharmacies, and they’re marked with a label that reads “NIOSH,” “N95” or “P100.” Those markings indicate the respirator is designed to filter out smoke particles.

Still, Adams said, you have to know how to use the respirator mask the right way for it to be effective. It must be worn with a seal against the face to ensure that the nose and mouth are totally protected from smoky air.

“The respirators do not necessarily work well if you haven’t been trained. They don’t work well with facial hair. They also don’t take out the odors, so if the odor is what is objectionable to you, this type of respirator will not take that out,” he said.

Adams emphasized that particulate respirators aren’t approved for use by children, and they can actually make it harder for those with lung and heart issues to breathe since they restrict air flow. Overall, Adams advises anyone with serious concerns about their health to speak with a doctor.

A local veterinarian said the same protocol applies to pet health.

WestVet’s Dan Hume said less is known about the effects of smoke on animals, but he doesn’t expect healthy pets to experience many problems. WestVet, an emergency treatment center, hasn’t seen an uptick in smoke-related illness so far.

Some cats have a form of asthma similar to humans, Hume said, and those animals may see more asthmatic episodes. Similarly, dogs regularly affected by bronchitis could see their health problems exacerbated by the smoke.

Hume advised using common sense in exercising animals.

“It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to have vigorous activity right now,” he said.

Nicole Blanchard: 208-377-6410, @NMBlanchard