Face coverings are common during the coronavirus pandemic, but they are not all created equally and some styles may not offer the best protection during these Spare the Air days resulting from the LNU Lightning Complex fires burning in the counties of Sonoma and Napa.
N95 masks offer the best protection from particulate matter associated with smoke, but those are in short supply and reserved for the medical community, said doctors Larry Posner and Thomas Dunlap.
Posner is the founder and principal of North Bay Allergy and Asthma Medical Associates in Sonoma, and Dunlap is a cardiologist with Northern California Medical Associates with offices in Sonoma and Santa Rosa.
Some people may have N95 masks from previous fires, and both doctors recommend they wear them, but if all they have are fabric or thinner, looser-fitting masks, that’s better than nothing, Posner said.
Making sure the N95 fits properly is important so that the air being breathed in is coming through the filter and not from the sides of the mask where it should fit snugly, Dunlap said.
There is a Spare the Air alert in effect for Sonoma Valley and the greater North Bay until Wednesday based on the air pollution concentration that is registering in the “Unsafe for Sensitive Group” category. The air quality is projected for Thursday to be in the “moderate” zone.
All of Sonoma Valley is in the Unsafe for Sensitive Group, with some areas higher in the mountains on Cavedale and Gehricke roads hitting “unhealthy” marks.
Areas east of Napa, from Fairfield south to just east of Fremont and northeast of Milpitas are in the unhealthy zone.
People in the Unsafe for Sensitive Group area who have chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma or heart disease they should limit their outdoor activity and, if exposed, for 24 hours they may experience serious health effects, according to Posner who tracks air quality on PurpleAir.com, which is an air quality monitoring system that uploads readings from community monitors about every 80 seconds.
“PurpleAir is sometimes better than the government sites and more comprehensive,” he said.
Everyone, especially children and those with respiratory and heart conditions, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion in areas that are marked unhealthy.
Air pollution can have harmful effects on health and may trigger asthma, allergies and other lung diseases as well as heart attacks, stroke and irregular heart rhythms, according to the American College of Cardiology.
“Smoke gets inhaled very deeply into the airways,” Posner said, and over a period of days, such as what the North Bay has been experiencing for more than a week, can have an accumulative effect.
Smoke “is a direct irritant” on the respiratory system “that causes increased stress on the cardiovascular system,” Dunlap said. “As your respiratory system is irritated you have to work harder to breathe” and that puts more “stress on the function of the heart to try and keep up with the work of breathing. It takes a certain amount of physical work to breathe” using the diaphragm as the primary muscle along with secondary muscles in the chest and neck.
Particulate matter, if dense enough, can cause irritant induced asthma, which causes a constriction of airways. That in turn increases the work of breathing and moving air in and out, Dunlap said. Smoke can also build up and clog airways and decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches lungs.
The best thing to do is stay inside, doctors agree.
“Nobody should spend a lot of time outside when it’s smoky like that. You see the stuff that’s sitting on your car hood, that’s the same stuff that you are breathing into your lungs,” Dunlap said.
Posner said there is concern about stress caused from months of worry about coronavirus and now the fires and smoke.
“Stress is one of the very common triggers of asthma,” Posner said.
Posner recommends finding ways to reduce stress, whether it’s listening to music, reading a book, being creative with arts and crafts, it is all best done indoors.
If it is necessary to go out, Posner said keep the air conditioning on in the car and make sure the recycle air function is on so that “you don’t pull in air from the outside.”
Temperatures are expected to stay in the high 80s in Sonoma Valley this week, and air quality can be checked at PurpleAir.com or SpareTheAir.com.
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