Should Utahns be wearing masks to combat poor air quality?

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SAN ANSELMO, CALIFORNIA – JULY 28: 3M brand N95 particulate respirators are displayed on a table on July 28, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. 3M reported second quarter earnings that fell short of analyst expectations and showed overall sales falling 12.2 percent to $7.18 billion despite a ramp-up in sales of N95 face masks due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

UTAH (ABC4) – Take a step outside. Then, take another step back inside.

You might notice that the air quality in the state is noticeably poor, this week in particular due to an abundance of smoke blowing in from wildfires burning in California, Oregon, and Idaho.

The smoke, in combination with a heatwave gripping the Salt Lake Valley, has produced moderate particulate matter levels and unhealthy ozone levels that may be hazardous to Utahns, especially those of sensitive groups such as children, the elderly, and those with a compromised respiratory system, including those who have damaged lungs from COVID-19.

“All people, including those who are vulnerable, should do what they can to protect themselves from exposure to both air and heat pollution,” Dr. Cheryl Pirozzi, a pulmonologist at the University of Utah says to, recommending staying indoors or timing outdoor activities for cooler times during the day and paying attention to any adverse responses to the conditions.

“The health effects of heat and air pollution exposure overlap quite a bit and are likely to be synergistic,” Pirozzi states. “For heat, there are specific heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke, but also exacerbation of underlying diseases like lung disease, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), heart disease. Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of air pollutants. A large component of it is particulate pollution, but it is likely more toxic than particulate pollution from others.”

Simply said, if you’re at risk for respiratory illness, including COVID-19, the current conditions are increasing the risk, according to experts.

When reached for comment on whether mask-wearing would be appropriate in such conditions, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality deferred to the opinion of the medical community.

Pirozzi, a member of that community, states that the N95 and N99 masks can reduce exposure to particulate pollution, but that the overall health benefits haven’t been well established. While those can be a good idea at times, another action that concerned residents can take is installing HEPA-certified air filters for their homes.

The current air quality situation with a whirling combination of ozone pollution, particulate pollution, wildfires, exposure, heat, and other factors can increase the risk for respiratory infections, including COVID-19. Pirozzi adds that preventative measures such as mask-wearing and getting vaccinated are “especially important,” at this time.

“I think even when we’re past the COVID pandemic, there’s always going to be respiratory viruses and all these exposures increase the risk for pulmonary infections,” she explains.

The good news is that a break from poor air may be on the way.

ABC4 Chief Meteorologist Alana Brophy explains that the storms shaping up to impact Southern Utah this week could be a precursor to a shift in air quality in the northern part of the state.

“With monsoon moisture surging into the state from the south, we can expect some relief from smoky skies by midweek,” she forecasts.

Still, it’s a serious situation, according to Pirozzi, and appropriate protective steps should be taken, especially by the most vulnerable. The smoke and heat can be a lethal combination, even from fires outside of the state.

“Wildfire smoke has been associated with increased mortality or death and an increased risk for respiratory disease,” Pirozzi attests. “And then exposure to ozone air pollution has some similar health effects as well increase hospital admissions for respiratory disease, increased pneumonia and respiratory infections in both adults and kids. Exacerbations of lung disease like asthma and COPD, cystic fibrosis, pulmonary fibrosis, and ozone itself are associated with increased deaths for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.”

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