Those surgical masks and cloth face coverings may help protect others from you when it comes to the Covid-19 coronavirus. But will they protect you against wildfire smoke?

Not really. A particular problem with wildfires is the particulate matter that’s generated. Particulate matter, or PM for short, are mixtures of solid particles and liquid that float in the air. Usually PM is reserved for very small particles. So, a ham-and-cheese sandwich being thrown at you is typically not considered particulate matter, although it could possibly generate some particulate matter.

Some PM may be visible, if it’s large enough or dark-colored. However, a lot of PM can be too small or too lightly colored to see, unless your eyes have been replaced by an electron microscope.

So what’s the problem with something that you can’t see? You know how they say don’t sweat the small stuff? Well, the trouble is that you may inhale it. While a ham-and-cheese sandwich may not go down your respiratory tract very well, anything less than 10 micrometers is inhalable, meaning small enough to get all the way down into your lungs. (By the way, don’t try to push a ham-and-cheese sandwich down your respiratory tract. This is not what’s meant by “inhaling a sandwich.”) Scientists use PM10 to designate particles of this size and call them “inhalable particles.”

Even smaller are “fine inhalable particles” or PM2.5 which are those that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller. In order to get a sense of how small these are, think about a ham-and-cheese sandwich. Eat the ham-and-cheese sandwich. Brush the crumbs off your mouth. Then, think about a single hair from your head. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains on its website, that hair is probably around 70 micrometers in diameter, assuming that you don’t have unusual tree-trunk sized hair. That would be 30 times larger than the largest fine inhalable particle. So forget the thought about being able to see fine inhalable particles in the air and dodge them. Even if you can dodge a wrench and a ball, you can can’t quite dodge fine inhalable particles.

Particles that are between 2.5 microns and 10 microns in diameter are considered “coarse particulate matter,” of course, otherwise known as PM 10-2.5. Then there are “ultrafine particles,” which are smaller than 0.1 micron in diameter. These can be extra problematic because they can can actually get through your lung tissue and move into your bloodstream. This would be ultra-not good.

Having such particles in your respiratory tract, lungs, and even bloodstream could cause sorts of health problems. They can irritate your airways and lung tissue, leading to coughing, difficulty breathing, and other respiratory symptoms. They can trigger heart problems such as irregular heartbeats or even heart attacks. Cancer may become a risk if you continue to inhale such particles over time.

The wildfire smoke is traveling great distances too as seen by the following view from space:

The trouble is many of the particles in wildfire smoke are small enough to get through the holes in ordinary face coverings. So if you are going to be exposed to wildfire smoke, it would be better to wear a face mask that can actually filter out fine or ultra-fine particulate matter, such as an N95 mask. Thus, the wildfire situation is adding to the reasons for more N95 masks to be made available.

This doesn’t mean that ordinary face coverings won’t prevent the transmission of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2). They can still block virus containing droplets that are coming out of your nose and mouth and therefore protect others from getting infected by you. Not wearing a face covering when you are in an indoor location is sort of like saying, “yes, I will pee in the pool. It is my right and freedom to do so.” An ordinary face covering is also better than nothing in protecting you against the Covid-19 coronavirus. It may offer you some protection but an N95 mask would be much better.

So, if you want to protect yourself against the wildfire smoke and the Covid-19 coronavirus, why not purchase a bunch of N95 masks then? Well, there’s a problem with that. You know those massive N95 face mask shortages in the U.S. at the beginning of the pandemic? Yeah, there are still shortages six months and counting into the pandemic.

Just look at some of the recent headlines. For example, Joel Rose wrote for NPR an article entitled, “Why Can’t America Make Enough N95 Masks? 6 Months Into Pandemic, Shortages Persist” and attributed the shortage “to the lack of a coherent national plan.” He indicated that few manufacturers have shifted to making N95 masks and health care professionals are continuing to have to re-use masks over and over again. That clearly is not good since N95 face masks typically have a limited lifetime and lose their effectiveness with more use. Rose added that “still, President Trump consistently ignores that reality.”

In an article for the Associated Press, Martha Mendoza, Juliet Linderman, Thomas Peipert and Irena Hwang quoted Mike Schiller, the American Hospital Association’s senior director for supply chains, as saying, “N95s are still in a shortage. It’s certainly not anywhere near pre-Covid levels.” According to the article, “the Associated Press has found the White House failed early in the pandemic to heed stark warnings of looming shortages and took months to sign contracts with companies that make the meltblown material. Even today, manufacturers say the Trump administration hasn’t made the necessary long-term investments they need to meet the soaring demand.”

Back in March, the main reason why public health experts were asking people not to use or hoard N95 masks was because existing supplies were not enough to even meet health care worker need. Certainly, health care workers should get N95 face masks before anyone else does. However, it is now half a year into the pandemic, and shortages still remain. And that’s a particulate, a particle, and a particular problem.