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Do masks that protect against COVID-19 also protect against air pollution? The answer is complicated

Posted at 7:51 PM, Aug 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-23 21:51:35-04

SALT LAKE CITY — With sunsets over the Wasatch Front looking red over the last few days, air quality has been talked about a lot.

California wildfires have done a number on Utah's air quality over the weekend.

Are the masks that we are already wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 helping to protect us against harmful air pollution?

To answer that question, we turned to Dr. Denitza Blagev, a pulmonologist at Intermountain Medical Center.

She explained that specifically the PM-2.5 particulate that is coming from the fires and ozone is also an issue with air quality right now.

Ozone is not able to be blocked by masks, but the PM-2.5 particulate is — kind of.

Masks like normal surgical masks don’t do much good against the particulate, but they may do somethings.

N95 masks, on the other hand, do a great deal to both prevent contracting the coronavirus and to keep dirty air out of your lungs. However, they are hard to come by and usually need to be fitted.

Some N95 masks come with respirator valves as well, and while it might be protecting you, those valves do not protect those around you if you have the virus since the air is not filtered coming out of the mask.

“It will work for trapping the particulates and reducing the particular air pollution exposure, and it will prevent you from getting COVID exposure,” Blagev said.

But just because a normal grade mask won't do much to stop the bad air doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother wearing one. During bad air quality days, your risk for COVID-19 and other infectious viruses and diseases increases significantly.

“It makes it easier for a virus or an infection," Blagev said. "Sort of the natural defenses are a little bit down already.”

When the lungs are getting inflamed and irritated by the PM-2.5 particulate, they become highly susceptible to any kind of virus — similar to a cut or an open wound being more prone to infection.

“Wear a surgical mask… It might offer a little bit of air pollution protection, but it will protect us from spreading COVID to each other, which we are all more susceptible to during air pollution,” Blagev said.