When a wildfire burns, every parent’s first thought is to protect their kids. But scroll through the internet, or browse local hardware stores, and you’ll have surprising difficulty finding a respirator mask from a reputable brand designed for infants and small children.
That’s because they don’t exist. While certified “N95” or “P100” masks can filter smoke and ash particles and improve air quality for adults, they are not designed for children.
So what should you do? First, do not buy an adult-sized mask in the hope that it may protect your child.
“They do not fit properly and can impede breathing,” according to the California Department of Public Health.
Some masks do come in smaller sizes, but they will probably be too large to form a tight enough seal around a small child’s nose and mouth to ensure protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health does not certify any childrens’ respirator masks.
Pediatricians warn that masks may also offer parents a false sense of security, encouraging them to spend more time outdoors exposing their children to hazardous smoke.
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“Parents can feel like their child has a mask on and is being protected, but the air that’s leaking around the sides of the mask is not being filtered because it doesn’t fit properly,” said Nelson Branco, a Marin County pediatrician who is on the governing board of the American Academy of Pediatrics, California. “There are lots of sites on Amazon and local sites that will sell you masks for children, but in general, we don’t recommend people get the over-the-counter masks, because they don’t tend to work very well.”
While some experts warn that ill-fitting masks can actually obstruct airflow and hamper breathing, Branco said masks are unlikely to cause serious breathing problems. But, he said, many children could find them uncomfortable, which could cause other problems.
“If the mask does not fit well or function, it may create anxiety for the child wearing it,” he said.
Short-term exposure to wildfire smoke, Branco stressed, should not harm most children who do not have asthma or an underlying lung disease.
“Personally, I like to decrease people’s anxiety, and a temporary exposure, for most children who are healthy, is not going to lead to long-term issues,” Branco said. “Typically, it takes long-term exposure — living in a highly polluted city like New Delhi or Manila, where the air quality index is always over 150 — or an underlying lung disease for there to be a significant problem.”
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Still, there are a range of measures parents can take to protect children.
Pulmonologists and pediatricians advise parents to log on to www.AirNow.gov to track air quality. If the air quality exceeds 150 on the air quality index, parents should make sure children, particularly those with asthma or other respiratory diseases, remain indoors as much as possible, with doors and windows closed. That simple measure, the California Department of Public Health advises, can reduce exposure to air pollution by a third or more.
According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, children can face particular health risks from exposure to wildfire smoke and ash, because their lungs are still growing. Symptoms can include chest pain and tightness, nose, throat and eye burning, as well as wheezing, coughing, dizziness.
The agency advises parents to prepare in advance by creating a “clean room” (an indoor space with few windows and doors), investing in a portable air cleaner they can use in this room and stocking up on food, medicine and essential supplies.
During a wildfire, parents should encourage their kids to avoid strenuous activities and keep them indoors, with the doors and windows closed, and pay attention to local news and public health warnings.
If you have an air conditioning system, run it with the fresh-air intake closed to keep smoky outdoor air from getting inside.
If not, consider leaving your area if your child has health conditions that may place them at a higher risk. Either head to a local clean-air shelter or a public building with air conditioning or seek shelter at a friend or relative’s home.