N95 Dust Masks: Don’t Leave Home Without Them?

By , November 20, 2018

With all the horrible fires in California, breathing has become a major issue for residents for miles around. On the news, they talk about the importance of wearing dust masks—not just any dust mask, but the N95 respirator.

I knew exactly what they were talking about, because I’ve stockpiled and carried N95 respirators for years. In fact, for me, they qualify as EDC, Every Day Carry.

N95 Respirator

A 3M N95 respirator (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

I don’t remember when, exactly, I suddenly realized that we, like a vast majority of Americans, and perhaps humans in general, think too little about lung health. We breathe in smoke, dust, pollen, and other particulates without a thought, even though they can have disastrous effect on our health.

It may have started when I realized that I held my breath as much as possible when cleaning the wood stove glass, a daily chore during our wood heating season (see Cleaning Wood Stove Glass: How and Why). I wore flimsier, less robust shop dust masks after that realization, but at some point, I learned about N95s.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the ‘N95’ designation means that when subjected to careful testing, the respirator blocks at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) test particles. If properly fitted, the filtration capabilities of N95 respirators exceed those of face masks. However, they note, even a properly fitted N95 respirator does not completely eliminate the risk of illness or death.

(Proper fitting means no facial hair, guys. Sorry.)

At any rate, when properly used, N95s can help protect your lungs against a variety of ills, including airborne flu virus and wildfire smoke.

It didn’t take long for me to decide that carrying a mask like this every day would add an excellent level of safety, just as carrying a proper pocket knife or other emergency supplies (see Constant Companion). The nature of an N95 makes this difficult—their effectiveness comes from their thickness and shape, so crushing in a pocket reduces their value. Luckily, they come in folded form! They’re not as beefy as the shaped ones, but they are individually wrapped, flat, and portable.

I ordered both kinds, and keep them handy, the regular ones for around the house, the folded ones for my coats. Every coat I own has at least one folded N95 stashed in a pocket, some have more than one.

Folded N95 respirator

An individually wrapped, folding N95 respirator (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

This prepares me for any eventuality that might threaten my lungs: dust storms, fires, floor sweeping . . . . I’ve cajoled Michelle and Aly into carrying them as well, so I feel a measure of family security.

Oddly, before I decided on this course, I tended to discount other people’s mask use, largely because a certain pop star decided, inexplicably, that dust masks are a fashion accessory. Luckily, that era has passed from cultural memory.

Besides, I’d rather look stupid than deal with infected or damaged lungs any day. Far more important than any credit card that uses the phrase, I don’t leave home without them!

(For an update on this topic, see A Filter Mask Upgrade.)

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