Side benefits of COVID masks: pollen

Local News

DENVER (KDVR) — If you’re like me, you’re fortunate enough to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and you’re thrilled to know you can finally take off that mask to go to many of your favorite stores and venues. (If you want a vaccine, go here for location info.) But then there’s that little part of you that may wonder if keeping the mask on just a bit longer is a better idea, since there’s always the concern that a mutation down the line could lead to a vaccine-out-smarting variant.

But another reason to not ditch the mask may be something many allergy sufferers know is already here: pollen.

This past windy weekend had many noticing puffs of yellow blowing from the pine trees after each gust. Colorado and much of the northern tier of the US is in the heart of pollen season and the wind efficiently lofts it into the air. Science says masks do filter pollen particles, but it depends on the type of mask you’re wearing.

Which masks filter pollen best?

Throughout this pandemic, many of us have become experts in mask classifications from N95 to KN95 to those blue civil-compliance surgical masks and even home-brew cloth coverings. The N95s are medical grade — the US standard and certified by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. When properly fitted, they can filter out about 95% of airborne particles ranging from viruses to other microscopic bits like dust, mold spores — and yes, pollen. (If they’re not fitted properly, they become somewhat ineffective.) And, even if you’re exposed to a bug, theoretically you’d receive a much lower viral load therefore reducing impacts. As of today, these are still reserved for medical professionals due to their scarcity.

 

KN95s are similar (and more available to the general public) but conform to the China medical standard, which some say have a lower benchmark for protection <= 8% leakage. They’re worlds better than homemade cloth masks and worn in combo with cloth may filter out even more crud.

N95 and KN95 masks filter anything from roughly 0.3 microns or larger. (Once we’re talking less than 1 micron, a.k.a. micrometer, it’s too small to see.) For perspective, 1 inch is 25,400 microns. A human hair is about 60 microns wide.

Pollen ranges from 5 microns to about 100 microns. At a size larger than about 50 microns, you can see it as yellow dust specs. 

Not all masks are created equal

However, if you are using a homemade cloth mask, considering that the average hole size in a bandana or cotton cloth is much larger (and porous) than the artificial materials which compose medical-grade masks, they may not be as effective.

If you’re a pollen sufferer, perhaps now is the best time to experiment and see if you notice a change. Under the social auspices of ‘pandemic prevention and safety’, you may just discover through your goodwill for fellow human by wearing a mask, that it’s one way to reduce your exposure to the pollen this spring is to simply keep on wearing that mask.

Then again, while masks help keep pollen from your nose and throat, a major source of irritation from pollen is from your eyes. National Jewish Health doctor Sanny Chan, MD says,

“for many seasonal allergy sufferers, pollen irritates the eyes the most.”

https://www.nationaljewish.org/conditions/allergy/overview/allergens/pollen/irritate-eyes

Even though scientifically, you’re likely protected from pollen by the same mask used to protect you from COVID-19, considering eyes are a major vector of allergy irritation, perhaps keeping that COVID-19 protecting face shield and goggles on will help even more.

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