Health Choices

The Importance of Dust Masks

This article was originally written by Rick Pedley

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If your job takes you to places where the air quality may be compromised, or if you undertake a project at home that exposes you to possible air contaminants, safety should be your number one priority. Humans take over 20,000 breaths a day on average, and air is something we can’t go without for more than a few minutes. Since avoiding harmful air may be impossible if you have to be in certain environments, steps must be taken to make breathing as safe as possible. A good dust mask could mean the difference between healthy breathing and permanent physical damage.
Exposure to dusts and other harmful materials in the air can lead to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). COPD includes two major respiratory illnesses: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis inflames the lung’s airways. When the body produces mucus to fight back, the airways become blocked and breathing becomes difficult. Emphysema destroys lung tissue and causes air pockets to form in the lungs. The lungs lose their ability to stretch during the inhale/exhale process, and as air becomes trapped in the lungs, you struggle to catch your breath. It’s clear that brief exposure to dangerous substances can result in a lifetime of labored breathing and respiratory problems. Investing in a high-quality dust mask could help you breathe easy for many years, even if you must work in environments where the air quality is poor.
When shopping for dust masks, look for the NIOSH approval rating. These ratings start with an N, R, or P for non-oil resistant, oil resistant, and oil-proof filter, respectively. An N mask will not protect you in the presence of oil mist while a P mask will usually last for 40 hours in the presence of oil aerosols. The NIOSH rating also includes a numeric value. The number tells you the filter efficiency of the mask based on its ability to block particles with a 0.3 micron diameter. The number is the percentage of effectiveness, so an N95 mask, for example, is non-oil resistant and is 95% effective.
The evidence is clear: exposure to contaminated air can cause irreparable lung damage. Sometimes the dangers are not apparent. A recent study revealed that workers at a crab processing plant were at risk for respiratory illnesses due to exposure to certain crab proteins while crushing shells, boiling, and separating crab legs and claws. So err on the side of caution: the use of a dust mask now could preserve your healthy lungs in the future.