How To Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke

How To Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke


As historic wildfires threaten life, health and property in the West and spread smoke all the way to the East Coast, UMass Amherst environmental health scientist Richard Peltier can shed light on the hazards of wildfire smoke and some strategies to protect yourself.

Wildfire smoke is a mixture of carbon monoxide, volatile organic carbon and particles that usually contain polyaromatic hydrocarbon, a known cancer-causing agent.

"Short-term exposures to intense smoke can lead to lung and cardiovascular problems in some people, especially if they are already susceptible to these diseases," Peltier said in a Q&A with The Conversation during a wildfire outbreak in 2017. "Longer-term exposure over a few days or weeks increases the risk and the chance of health impacts as your cumulative dose increases."

Those who can't leave the wildfire area should close windows and door and apply weather sealing -- even masking tape. Portable HEPA filters can be effective at removing indoor air pollution, especially in smaller areas such as bedrooms. 

What not to do: Air fresheners that contain odorants such as oil vaporizers or scented candles can make indoor air quality worse, and products claiming to  "clean" the air using ozone can create a hazard by releasing ozone into your home.

Personal face mask respirators can also be effective, Peltier says, but there's still a shortage of the preferred N-95 masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they need to be reserved for frontline workers.

Peltier has used his expertise with face mask research to address whether it’s safe for health care workers to reuse medical face masks, which are designed for one-time use. 

In a collaboration with New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, Peltier found that N95 masks continued to filter microscopic particles properly following a sterilization technique using hydrogen peroxide.

After the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized emergency use of several different sterilization techniques in light of the face mask shortage, Peltier took a close look at those processes in his lab. This urgent research, funded by a fast-track grant from the National Science Foundation, found that certain methods of decontaminating medical face masks for repeated use during the COVID-19 pandemic appear to damage the masks’ integrity and protective function.

Peltier’s laboratory usually studies air pollutants around cities or within homes. But previous work in his lab tested another type of mask that was found not to work as well as the N95 masks worn by doctors, nurses, technicians and other health care providers.

Peltier uses state-of-the-art pollution detection instruments and a mannequin head in his lab to measure whether microscopic particles can pass through the masks after they are sterilized.

“Respirators must be effective across a range of potential conditions to provide protection since droplets that contain virus particles immediately start to evaporate and shrink,” he says. (all quotes for media use)

In light of the COVID-19 epidemic, hospitals and other medical facilities around the world continue to face a critical shortage of N95 respirators, and sterilization of previously worn masks are helping to ease the insufficient supply. 

In his most recent research in July, published in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, Peltier found that “some treatments for decontamination had no impact on respirator performance, while other treatments resulted in substantial damage to masks.”

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  • Richard  Peltier
    Richard Peltier Professor of Environmental Health Sciences

    Richard Peltier's research looks at how poor air quality affects human health.