Australians have gone out in droves to buy up P2 smokes for the smokey bushfire conditions being experienced across the country in recent months. But with a new outbreak of Coronavirus spreading out of China and causing global concerns, the masks could work against being infected by airborne contagious diseases too. Here's what you need to know.
While the bushfires themselves present the biggest threat to human lives, another lurking danger is impacting the health of thousands more: smoke pollution. You've probably seen a bunch of scary looking numbers in the news but what do they actually mean? Here's how to decipher the air quality index (AQI) in your area - and what to do when the level becomes dangerous.
Update: Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, has urged Australians not to rush out and buy P2 masks given there has been no confirmed case of human-to-human transmission in Australia. Only healthcare workers and those in contact with infected patients have been advised to use them. Advice will be updated if the situation evolves.
Parts of Australia have been hit with consistently poor air quality over the summer months due to the disastrous bushfires raging across a number of regions. Health officials and experts have warned the dangers of breathing in this sometimes hazardous air and recommended those needing to go outside during these conditions wear a well-sealed P2 mask as it's the only mask known to be effective against the minuscule particulate matter in the air. Because of this, many Australians in areas affected by the bushfire smoke have gone out and bought P2 masks to limit the amount of particles entering lungs. With the recent dust storms affecting the east coast, P2 masks have been considered a good measure stop the fine outback dust from being inhaled.
But the P2 masks aren't just effective against limiting the inhaling of smoke and dust particles, it turns out they're great for contagious airborne diseases too.
A recent outbreak of novel Coronavirus has affected hundreds of of people across China and with reported cases in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the United States. It's fast moving with more people being confirmed as infected each day and has killed 17 people with underlying medical issues so far. World Health Organisation's (WHO) Director-General confirmed on 24 January it would not yet declare a global health emergency but considers the virus a "very high risk in China, and a high risk regionally and globally." China have responded to the outbreak by shutting down travel options from Wuhan without special reason. Flights and trains have been suspended but with other major cities in China reporting a number of cases, there are concerns the spread might not be contained so easily.
Symptoms of the virus, which is still being investigated, include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties in more mild cases. In the more severe instances, the virus can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and, in some cases, death.
Australia's response has been swift. Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, has told the media the last flight from from Wuhan to Sydney, the only Australian city to receive direct flights from the virus' epicentre, was met with bio security officials who tested passengers and provided them with information about the virus' symptoms. ABC reported hours later that one passenger had been held for testing but it's not yet been confirmed whether they've been cleared.
While Australia has not yet been affected, there are steps Australians can take to limit the risk of spread in the event that Coronavirus arrives in the country. Aside from maintaining a high level of hygiene, washing hands frequently and avoiding contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections, you can also use a P2 mask in public spaces.
"P2 masks are likely to provide some protection against the virus, but these must be fitted and worn properly," the NSW health department recommends on its site.
"People who think that they might be infected with novel coronavirus should wear a surgical mask (or P2 mask) in order to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to anyone else."
Similarly, the Victoria health department recommends doctors and health care officials wear P2 masks when assessing patients displaying symptoms of the virus. The department, however, confirmed the P2 masks are not recommended for the public.
"Face masks are not recommended for use by members of the public in Victoria for the prevention of infections like novel coronavirus," Victoria's health department wrote.
It should be noted that transmission between humans has yet to occur outside of China, according to WHO, at the time of writing. While it's not yet known if the transmission can occur through the air, it's an extra precaution that can be taken until the method of transmission is confirmed.
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How do the P2 masks work?
Unlike regular surgical masks, P2 respirator masks or N95 masks, when fitted with a perfect seal, work by filtering out very fine particles. These particles are often invisible to the naked eye and in the case of bushfire smoke, can be as small as 2.5 micrometres (0.0025 mm).
If you're unsure how well your mask is sealed, follow this video to ensure nothing nasty is sneaking in.
Where can I buy P2 masks in Australia?
Most P2 masks can be purchased from hardware stores, like Bunnings, for under $20 but a recent surge in supply means they should be available at selected chemists around the country too. A list of pharmacies selling the masks in bushfire-affected areas around NSW can be found on the health department's site.
Whatever your preference, it's important to make sure it seals around your face perfectly and is definitely P2-rated.
New South Wales is currently suffering through a severe smoke haze, as strong winds spread bushfire smoke across the state. While many have turned to filtered masks for protection against the pollution, not all masks are effective in protecting against smoke inhalation. For the best protection, you'll need a P2 mask — the kind usually worn by builders.