Are those smoke masks safe? Handouts end in Sacramento area as city and county argue

Fire stations are ending free distribution of N95 respirator masks in the Sacramento region after the county raised safety concerns, though smoke from the Camp Fire continues to create unhealthy air conditions.

The city of Sacramento released a statement Thursday afternoon saying the mask program is “nearing its conclusion” because the city has been unable to obtain additional masks from the California Office of Emergency Services or California Department of Public Health.

While a news release by Cal OES on Sunday promoted the use of N95 masks to help “breathe easy” in light of wildfire smoke blanketing Northern California, Sacramento County this week published multiple warnings discouraging the use and distribution of such masks.

The city says in its statement the first 7,000 N95 masks came from the county, with thousands more coming from Cal OES, but subsequent requests for masks routed through the county have not been filled. Based on its recommendations and warnings, Sacramento County seems unlikely to fulfill those requests.

The city handed out approximately 67,000 masks to residents who had asked for them, according to the news release.

Sacramento County issued a statement Tuesday warning that the risks introduced by wearing N95 masks can potentially outweigh their benefits.

The county Department of Health advised against the use of N95 respirators, warning residents that they can lead to breathing difficulties and elevated heart rate, especially for people with respiratory or cardiac conditions.

The city will continue to distribute masks from Sacramento Fire Department stations to those who ask for them until its supply runs out.

As of Wednesday night, Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District is no longer distributing masks to residents, the district announced Thursday.

Spokesman Brian Gonsalves said Metro Fire was directed Wednesday by the county to stop giving out the masks. Gonsalves said the county never approved or recommended Metro Fire start doing it in the first place.

“It was just something that the fire district thought might be helpful,” Gonsalves said.

“The use of the N95 Respirator Mask is only recommended for those near the fire who do not have the option to be indoors or have access to filtered/recirculated air,” Tuesday’s news release by the county said.

Gonsalves added that the masks should be individually fitted in order to be effective, which many fire stations were not able to do upon widespread distribution.

The Bee has reported factors that may diminish N95 masks’ effectiveness, including an inability to protect bearded men and a false sense of security they may provide to people outdoors.

In another updated news release, the county public health officer points out the respirator masks are not recommended for children.

The Cosumnes Fire Department, which serves Elk Grove and Galt, tweeted Thursday morning that its stations were no longer carrying masks and linked to the county’s statement discouraging their use.

The Placer County Department of Public Health issued a similar advisory to Sacramento’s.

The city of Roseville said in a news release it had handed out more than 11,000 masks to the community earlier this week, also through its fire stations. These masks were part of an existing supply kept by the city’s emergency management team.

Rocklin has not handed out N95 masks to its residents, according to social media posts by the city, citing Placer County’s advisory warnings.

Both counties’ main recommendation for avoiding poor air quality is to stay indoors as much as possible.

A webpage set up by Sutter Health following wildfire smoke coverage in Northern California gives recommendations to avoid poor air quality. Among them: Stay indoors, use air conditioning, stay hydrated and keep your inhaler handy if you suffer from asthma.

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