Your lungs: where the global pandemic and the climate crisis meet

Masks and air filters that protect from COVID also protect from wildfires

By: - April 25, 2022 4:00 am

(Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

New Mexico’s wildfire season is here early, and we know from the past two years that wildfires only add to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

There were 20 active wildfires in New Mexico on Saturday, state officials told reporters.

Smoke from wildfires in New Mexico may have spread as far away as South Dakota on Saturday. 

The easiest way to avoid wildfire smoke is to stay indoors. That’s exactly what Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recommended Saturday, as she declared a state of emergency for Mora County, following similar emergencies in Colfax, Lincoln, San Migel and Valencia counties.

But that gets complicated when the indoor air could harbor viral aerosols exhaled by a person infected with COVID-19.

Scientists for decades have been sounding the alarm about the quality of the air inside our homes, schools, workplaces and public spaces, but it seems to be getting more attention during the global health emergency, says Paloma Beamer, an exposure scientist and professor at the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.

“There’s a lot of work that has been done to show the importance of indoor air quality,” Beamer said in an interview. “Those of us that look at the indoor air environment have worried about it for a long time, and EPA has worried about it for a long time and has had lots of programs to address it. I think we’re still kind of seen as a little niche science that has been trying to jump up and down for 30 years.”

Plus, local environmental health officials have previously warned that exposure to particulates can aggravate severity of COVID-19 symptoms. And COVID-19 can increase health impacts from particulate exposure.

There is a growing consensus that air pollution exacerbates respiratory illness like pneumonia and acute bronchitis by impairing the body’s immune response, the Nevada Current reports.


Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of catching COVID-19, studies show. A team of Harvard researchers found that even short-term exposure to particulate matter from wildfire smoke increased COVID-19 cases and deaths during the 2020 wildfire season in Oregon, California and Washington.

Christopher Carlsen, director of the Air Pollution Exposure Lab at UBC, told The Tyee that since the particulate matter from fire is already known to damage the lungs, “there is strong biological plausibility for fires worsening COVID.”

“The most common way COVID-19 is transmitted from one person to another is through tiny airborne particles of the virus hanging in indoor air for minutes or hours after an infected person has been there,” said Dr. Alondra Nelson, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Deputy Assistant to the President.

High-quality masks like N95s or their equivalents offer the best protection against both viral aerosols and wildfire smoke, according to the CDC and the EPA. While cloth masks offer much less protection, any mask is better than no mask, said Alex Huffman, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Denver.

Colorado, Arizona and Texas also saw wildfires in recent days, including near Boulder where Marina Vance works in the environmental engineering program at the University of Colorado.

“N95 masks are the type of face-covering protection that I would recommend for somebody who is outside during the air pollution caused by wildfires,” she told Healthline in August.

When it comes to indoor environmental filters, the same principles apply to viruses and smoke. Relatively inexpensive and simple build-it-yourself air filters reduce the amount of smoke inside a building comparable to commercial air cleaners, according to preliminary research from the EPA.

Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard, says good air filtration helps fight against both COVID and wildfire smoke.


The latest information on evacuations and fires in New Mexico.

Instructions on how to make one kind of portable air filter, called a Corsi-Rosenthal box, can be found here.

You can find air quality information in your area with this tool created by the EPA.

You may be able to find free N95 masks using this CDC tool. Enter your ZIP code to find pharmacies that received free N95s from the federal government. The tool does not track inventory.

If you can afford it, Project N95 is a trusted site to buy vetted masks, respirators, tests and more.

More information about how to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.