Standing in a smoky room
Face masks for bushfires in Australia
Something I notice fairly regularly are declarations on “things to do” by scientists and governments which however fail to tell people HOW TO ACTUALLY DO THE THING!
So here’s my effort to clarify one such issue: bushfire smoke and whether you should wear a mask.
The answer is YES by the way.
AWOOGAH! — DANGER WILL ROBINSON! — HERE BE DRAGONS!
I want to make this absolutely clear right here and now:
I AM NOT AN EXPERT
I’ve put this information together from a mere 20 hours online research. I’ve done my best to mark when I’m expressing an opinion (a personal statement of belief that MAY BE INCORRECT).
THERE WILL BE GAPS, ERRORS and OMISSIONS in this article.
Refer to the links at the end of the article for expert help.
Australian bushfires are throwing smoke across the country and around the world. Air quality is plummeting and the EPA website has been rating air quality as poor to hazardous all week.
Note: the EPA website is getting hammered because the air quality is so bad.
I think of air quality like standing in a closed room with a couple of smokers. If you wouldn’t do that, then walking outside with smoke haze is equally bad.
From what I’ve read, scientists are saying three things:
1. Bushfires have never (in western settlement terms at least) been this fierce, long-lasting or covered the massive areas they have.
2. If you go outside, you should wear a close fitting face mask rated P2 or above (For reference, Firefighters are using p2.5 and will probably need higher).
3. Health wise, we’re in uncharted territory. There’s not much longitudinal (as in time-based) research on smoke exposure to this degree.
Personal Opinion: I expect the only research would be for long term smokers.
But don’t just believe me. Here’s official information on why a mask is needed in this kind of environment.
Only one type of mask protects you from bushfire smoke
Waking up to a haze of smoke is becoming an eerily familiar sight to people across the country. This week, Sydney is…
Even if you don't live near a bushfire, your health could be at risk
You can be quite a long way from a bushfire and still have it affect your health. Bushfire smoke can travel hundreds of…
There’s an App for that
But how do you tell if it’s safe to go outside?
Well, there’s an app for that!
Personal Opinion: I like the Airrater app from the University of Tasmania.
Monitoring and sensing equipment captures information on air quality, pollen and temperature. At the same time, you can…
There are alternatives of course, including the aforementioned EPA website.
Masks are ugly as sin, and there’s a lot of crap on the market. But if scientists are right (and when aren’t they?) this is going to be the new normal. So masks will become more and more common.
They boil down to five basic types:
- surgical mask — these are useless for smoke protection, they don’t seal, there’s no filter, they’re intended for clean surgical environments, not streets.
- painters mask — p100-p2 rated. p2 rated are better, but they have to seal around nose and mouth otherwise they’re useless. Getting that seal is difficult as they tend to use cheap elastic straps.
Personal Opinion: Use these in an absolute emergency and I’d be holding it against my mouth with a spare hand. I’ve read some people wrap a scarf around their faces to hold the mask in place, but this is ANECDOTAL AT BEST.
- fabric mask — again, p2 or above and they do have adjustable straps, but they are strictly one time use. I’ve looked into cambridge masks for this (more below)
- respirators with swappable filters — used for painting, spraying, etc. These are reusable with swappable filters, but filters are proprietary design, so not swappable. Think Apollo 13 and you’ve got the basic gist. The two manufacturers I’ve researched deeper is 3m and Modlex but there are others. You keep the mask, swap the filters. There are charcoal filters which are intended for chemical environments and when unpacked start working and expire on their own. The paper filters are rated to p2-p3. (More below)
- full face — a respirator with built in faceplate. These are what firefighters and hazmat teams use. They’re tricky to use but have certain guarantees in high risk environments.
All masks have to be fitted carefully to the face and seal around mouth and nose. Any gaps and it’s all over.
Personal Opinion: Least offensive mask is the Cambridge with caveats. I chose the Moldex 8000 series for reasons that will become clear.
Least Offensive — the Cambridge
The least offensive mask is the Cambridge, however this comes with the following caveats:
1. Filters are NOT replaceable. It’ll last a maximum of 360 hours before you have to throw it away.
2. Make sure you get a size that’ll fit snugly.
CAMBRIDGE MASK Co - Cambridge Mask Co
Cambridge Masks™ are respirators that use military grade filtration technology to filter out nearly 100% of particulate…
I did an online comparison between 3m masks and Moldex.
Both masks require a 2-pack of filters and can be used with paper filter (rated p2-p3) or a combination paper and charcoal filter (designed for chemical environments) that begins its life immediately on opening and changes colour to let you know it’s expired.
Personal Opinion: I felt the 3m masks were a little more complex to setup and there’s less standardization across the filter types — they have standalone round filters or trapezoid (triangle with point cut off) filters that go into a cassette.
My choice — Moldex
I chose the 8000 series mask as it seemed to be more standardized regarding assembly and filters.
Moldex® Australia - Hearing and Respiratory Protection
The Moldex ® 8000 Series Respirator conforms to the contours of your face, seals comfortably and stays sealed, even…
Cambridge Masks site does offer fit instructions, and have different sizes.
How Do I Decide Between all of the Types of Masks? -
There is a term called "N-Series" masks particulate respirators, these masks provide protection against solid and…
Moldex has similar instructions, but for the average person, medium is ok.
Personal Opinion: Seriously, who the hell puts PDFs on websites these days?
You’ll find fitting videos on YouTube and there are probably instructions with whichever mask you buy.
This depends on the conditions.
EPA website lists air ratings and their actual meanings in this page:
How we calculate air quality categories
EPA AirWatch uses air quality categories to show the level of air pollutants at our monitoring sites across Victoria…
- Cambridge Masks — lifespan listed based on conditions on their FAQ page but in short, you’ll get between 90–340 hours out of a single mask before disposal.
Frequently Asked Questions - Cambridge Mask Co
Can the mask be washed? How long can the mask can be used for? What does the mask filters? Or if you have any other…
- Moldex filters are rated against a whole bunch of things, but I’ve not found a lifespan. This is most likely because they’re primarily for industrial use, and assumption is they’ll be thrown out after a couple of uses.
Moldex® Australia - Hearing and Respiratory Protection
8032A Assembled Respirator The 8832A HEPA Assembled Respirators include 8830A HEPA Disk/Filter and 8900A Disk/Filter…
But where do I get one?
I ordered mine on eBay, but some local retailers are restoring stock. Last I heard, (one week ago from today) Bunnings Stores were sending all their stock to the firefighters which is fair enough.
Take care with eBay because there’s a lot of “fake” brand masks out there.
Ordering from overseas is probably another way to go, or from regions not affected by smoke, such as Western Australia.
Some additional resources of note.
Personal protective equipment
Safe Work Australia does not provide legal advice on the operation of the model Work Health and Safety laws. You must…
Chat with these peeps about fitting and recommendations. No guarantees they’ll have masks for sale in Victoria, New South Wales or Queensland.