No more masks at CVS on Telegraph Avenue as of Friday, Oct. 13. Photo: Ted Friedman

Stewart Johnston had never seen anything like it in all his years as an owner of the Johnston Medical store on Shattuck Avenue.

At one point Thursday, more than 40 people were lined up at the shop to buy face masks to protect themselves from the unhealthy air caused by massive fires in Napa and Sonoma counties.

“I’ve never had a crush of customers like that,” said Johnston.

Cole Hardware on College Avenue in Oakland has seen a similar rush. For the past two mornings, customers have lined up before the store opened, desperate to get face masks, according to Tess Wigglesworth, the store manager. The shop has sold 300-400 masks in the last few days. Combined with the other four outlets in San Francisco, the chain has sold thousands of masks, she said.

Berkeley Ace Hardware sold out of masks Wednesday.

People are lining up to get masks because the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Berkeley and around the region has, at times in the last few days, been as bad as the dirty air in Beijing.

Friday morning started as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” in Berkeley, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, as reported on AirNow, but was back up to “Unhealthy,” with an AQI of 171, before noon. That designation means people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion, and everyone else should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion. Although the air quality in Berkeley seems very poor, there are in fact two EPA higher levels: “Very Unhealthy” and “Hazardous.” For the latter, the AQI needs to be between 301 and 500.

The EPA calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

The atmospheric particulate matter, known as PM2.5,  are particulates that “have a diameter of fewer than 2.5 micrometers, which is about 3% the diameter of a human hair,” according to Bliss Air.

Any air with a PM2.5 over 35.5 over a 24-hour period can cause some health concerns, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

The readings in Napa near the fires have at times exceeded 148 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the BAAQMD air monitoring figures. Air quality measured at Berkeley’s Aquatic Park in the last few days has routinely exceeded the 35.5 PM2.5 levels. On Wednesday at 10 a.m., it measured 75. On Thursday around noon, it measured 86 micrograms per cubic meter. At 7 a.m. Friday, it measured 54.

How the EPA’s Air Quality Index measurements work. Click on the table for more information.
Air Quality measurements on Thursday. Any measurement above 35.5 is considered unhealthy. Source: BAAQMD. Click on table for more information.

Not all masks are effective

People looking for protection for face masks cannot just buy the surgical paper masks used by surgeons. They must buy N95 masks that have filters to protect against small particles.

However, at least one doctor has cautioned that N95 masks are really more useful for people in the actual fire area than people living around here.

“N95 mask are not air purifiers, they can only filter larger particulate matter in the air, which can help people closer to the fires, but smaller gases and particles that can stay airborne will still get through,” said Dr. Ronn Berrol, the medical director of the emergency department at Sutter Health’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.

“If your physician directs you to get a respirator mask it is best you get one that is certified for outdoor use that can resist aerosolized oils, however for most people we do not recommend standard use of these devices,” he added.

Cole Hardware is currently out of masks but is expecting another big shipment of masks Friday, said Wigglesworth. The store’s main supplier is out, so the store will be getting “vogmasks,” which are reusable cloth masks that come in colorful styles. They cost about $30 a mask but last for three years, she said. The paper masks are good for about eight hours.

The Home Depot in Oakland has a few masks left but they are going fast, according to an associate there. A pack of 15 N95 masks at a Home Depot in San Jose cost about $20.

Sorting through face masks at Johnston Medical store in Berkeley. Photo: Ted Friedman
People wearing face masks in downtown Berkeley on Friday. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley Ace Hardware is also hoping to get more masks Friday. (Update: A reader just reported around 3 p.m., that the store got 95 more masks). Johnston Medical Supply still has a few masks available and has ordered more, but they won’t arrive until next week, said Johnston. Orchard Supply Hardware has been out of masks for two days, an employee told Berkeleyside contributing photographer Ted Friedman.

Even Amazon is having trouble. Michael Hamilton tried to order some masks Friday, but Amazon said they could not be delivered to the Bay Area. An Amazon representative told him via email that there was a glitch in the system that they were working to fix.

Attempts to buy masks on Amazon for delivery to the Bay Area failed on Friday. Image: Amazon
An employee points to an empty space where face masks are usually found at Walgreens in Berkeley. Photo: Ted Friedman

Brenda Kahn of Berkeley called three different hardware stores Thursday, but they were all out of masks, she said. She finally found some at Johnston Medical.

“I scored the last packages of a certain type that’s really for sanding drywall and fiberglass — I took two and gave the third and last one to an elderly woman in the store who was on oxygen,” Kahn wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. But she later said: “The reality of wearing one is super unpleasant, so I am not even sure I can wear one after all that hustling to find them yesterday. I’m in downtown SF right now and the wind is blowing the air cleaner here.”

Update Oct.14, 8:25 a.m. See the following note from a local medical professional who shared his insights with Berkeleyside.

I am a Berkeley resident and have been asked this question by my colleagues, as they have seen media reports suggesting these masks are effective. I thought I would share an email I have provided to others regarding the effectiveness of N95 respirators for the general public. Overall, I think you will see I agree with Dr. Berrol.

There is good evidence that respirators, including N95 and N100’s provide respiratory protection, when the wearer:

1) Is medically evaluated and deemed healthy to wear a respirator

2) Is fit with the appropriate size respirator

3) Is tested to ensure the respirator provides the appropriate seal (i.e. is clean shaven at the site of contact with the respirator)

4) Is trained on wear, fit, maintenance or disposal of the respirator

5) Is able to wear the respirator for the duration of the exposure

The general public will not meet most, if any, of the 5 criteria I’ve listed above. So I would advise against a general recommendation for the population to get these, as I question their efficacy. They are generally impractical for any sustained amount of time (unless conducting a controlled task, generally in a controlled environment). I worry these would give a false sense of security (as I’ve seen people now wearing them improperly and exercising/biking) and causing anxiety if someone does not have access to these masks, such as parents of young children. Masks/respirators are being sold on the internet, marketed for children, but they have not been scientifically tested for efficacy in children.


Timur S. Durrani, MD, MPH, MBA
Assistant Medical Director, San Francisco Division
California Poison Control System
Associate Director, UCSF Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit
Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine
UCSF, Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
San Francisco General Hospital

Editor’s note: This story has been updated as more information came in.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...