Masks neither help nor hurt during air quality alerts, experts say

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Knoxville was under a poor air quality alert Tuesday, which means those with lung or heart diseases could experience health issues, according to the Air Quality Index.

The AQI was forecasted to reach 105, which falls under the ‘orange’ alert level.

Christine Hart, an air quality expert with the American Lung Association in Tennessee, said the average person wouldn’t notice in the air quality, but for younger children, the elderly or those with weaker lungs or hearts could be impacted.

“On bad airs days…if you have asthma you have an increased risk for triggering an asthma attack; if you have heart disease, you have a risk, increased risk of triggering a heart attack. Any respiratory illnesses or disease, you have increased risk of coughing or wheezing and difficulty catching your breath,” Hart said.

Hart said that because of the topography in East Tennessee, poor air quality days during the summer aren’t out of the ordinary. She said the air pollution can get trapped in the mountains.

She said vehicle emissions, industrial sites emissions and, currently, the Saharan dust plume are also contributing factors to poor air quality.

What is new this summer are the mask mandates.

However, Hart said most of the masks worn by the public won’t help filter pollution because the air pollution molecules are too small.

“Larger particles like dust can be filtered out with a mask, um, but unless you have an industrial mask or respirator made just for air pollution, generally the mask will not work for air pollution,” Hart said.

With that being said, Hart said the American Lung Association would not change any recommendations about wearing masks during poor air quality days.

Hart said the only way to protect yourself from air pollution is to limit your time outside.

“For individuals living with chronic lung disease who are at higher risk if they do become sick with COVID, or who have higher risks for worse outcomes with the bad air day, it is best to remain home and distance from others to reduce your risk from contracting the virus, but also minimizing your exposure to outdoor air,” Hart said.

She said for those who like to exercise outside, go in the morning or after the sun sets when the outside temperature is cooler.

Hart said that everyone, especially those in the sensitive group, should monitor the air pollution levels. They can do so by visiting AirNow.gov.

If you have to drive, roll up the car windows and close the vents so the outside air stays outside.

Hart also said on poor air quality days, it’s best to not add to the already polluted air.

“Reducing your own pollution, so consider postponing mowing your yard today, or using your grill, or making unnecessary trips in your vehicle,” Hart said.

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