Face Mask Guide for Homeowners
Many activities around the home create a lot of airborne dust. From mowing the lawn to sanding down drywall, all the dust in the air can really make it hard to breathe sometimes. One way that we, as homeowners try to combat that dust is to wear a face mask. This face mask guide for homeowners will help you make sure you choose the right face mask for the job at hand.
Face masks can offer a certain amount of protection from airborne particles, that’s for sure, but knowing which mask to use can often be the difference between coughing up a lung and breathing easy.
Plain old dust masks with a single band are a good choice when it comes to most jobs around the house but, as the wearer of one of these, you need to know its limitations.
When do I really need to wear a face mask?
The main reason to wear a face mask is to keep particles in the air from entering your lungs and, potentially, your bloodstream. Tiny particles in the air less than 2.5 micron in diameter (known as PM2.5) are the most dangerous of all.
Depending on the composition of these particles, they can enter your bloodstream through your lungs and cause all sorts of health issues. Anything from heart and lung disease to nervous system disorders have been associated with fine particulate matter in the air.
As a homeowner, there are a few sources of PM2.5 that we really need to protect ourselves from when we are working with them. Spray painting is one that comes to mind.
Atomized paint vapors yield tiny droplets of paint that can float around in the air for long periods of time. Also, painting of any kind can end up putting massive amounts of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs for short, into the air.
Most canned spray paint releases xylene, toluene, and acetone vapors into the air. These chemical compounds can cause serious health issues if inhaled for prolonged periods of time.
Another potential hazard for homeowners is asbestos. This material was used extensively in home construction up until the early ‘80s. If you are remodeling a home built before then, be aware that you probably have asbestos somewhere in your home.
Asbestos is a leading cause of serious lung diseases and lung cancers. If you suspect asbestos, get a second opinion from a trained professional before proceeding.
What kind of face mask do I need?
For homeowners, there are three types of face masks we are going to discuss. Each one has its place in our PPE (personal protective equipment) arsenal. There is really no one mask that is suitable for everything but some you will use more than others.
This mask loosely fits over the mouth and nose. It will filter out large particles from nuisance dust like that you would find when sawing wood, sweeping out the garage, or mowing the yard. These are the cheapies that have only one flimsy rubber strap for support. They are very cheap, often less than a dollar each, but you get what you pay for. These masks don’t filter out the tiny, most harmful particles and don’t do much better for the bigger ones either. There is no tight seal between the face and the filter and, without that seal, the face mask is not going to be very effective.
These masks are disposable and should not be re-used.
Particulate Filtering Facepiece Respirators
The particulate filtering facepiece respirator is the way to go if you are serious about filtering particles out of your breathing air. They look similar to the standard dust mask but with some major differences. They usually have at least 2 securing straps to ensure a tight seal on the face. Also, the filter itself is much thicker and designed to trap those small particles that cause so much trouble.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH for short, has an approved a set of criteria for these devices and certifies them based on their filtering ability and whether or not they can handle oil based contaminants.
The most common filtering facepiece respirators are certified N95. When selecting one of these respirators, make sure this number is clearly visible somewhere on it.
The effectiveness of these respirators rest with the wearer for the most part. A secure fit against the face must be maintained at all times, otherwise, air is pulled in around the edges of the mask instead of through the filtering media, rendering them ineffective.
Another issue to keep in mind it that, because the filtering media is tightly woven to catch those small particles, it can be difficult to breathe through. These devices are not recommended for those with heart problems and impaired lung function. Also, it is highly recommended that an initial fit test be done to ensure effectiveness.
Like the plain dust mask, these respirators are disposable and should be changed out often.
Half-face Cartridge Respirator
The half-face cartridge respirator is a non-disposable respirator, usually constructed from a rubber material that provides a very good fit around the wearer’s face. They come in various sizes for comfort and to make sure the fit (seal to the face) is the best it can be.
These respirators can either come with one or two cartridge type filters that screw onto the mask. These cartridges are disposable and most have an expiration date. These cartridges can offer more than just particulate filtering abilities by being able to filter out VOC’s as well. They can remove a number of different toxic substances from the air depending on the filter media they are constructed from.
You will want to use a half-face cartridge respirator when painting if you are working in a non-ventilated area. Also, it is advisable to wear these when doing any type of tear out on older homes as there is always the possibility of coming in contact with asbestos.
How does the NIOSH classification work?
NIOSH came up with a rating system consisting of letters and numbers. The letters represent the facepiece’s ability to resist oil and the numbers tell the user what percentage of airborne particulates it is able to remove.
The letter at the beginning of the filter’s classification will be an N, R, or P for its abilities to resist oils.
N – not resistant to petroleum
R – somewhat resistant to petroleum
P – strongly resistant to petroleum
So, if we take a look at the N95 certified face mask, we can tell that it is not resistant to petroleum and can filter out 95% of particulates that are 0.3 micron in size and larger.
There are 7 classifications in this group: N95, N99, N100, R95, P95, P99, and P100
One thing to note here, the higher up you go on the filtering percentage, the more difficult it will be to breathe through. This is also true of using an N type filter verses a P type. If you are planning on wearing one of these devices for long periods of time, keep this in mind when selecting a particulate filtering facepiece respirator.
There are many handyman jobs around the home that require a breathing air filtering face mask. Knowing the differences between the available choices and using the right face mask for the job is the safe way for homeowners to protect themselves.