Can an Air Purifier Protect You From Canadian Wildfire Smoke and Air Pollution?
Yes, but you'll need a purifier with a HEPA filter to effectively remove smoke particulate from the air.
Macy MeyerEditor I
Macy Meyer is a N.C. native who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2021 with a B.A. in English and Journalism. She currently resides in Charlotte, N.C., where she has been working as an Editor I, covering a variety of topics across CNET's Home and Wellness teams, including home security, fitness and nutrition, smart home tech and more. Prior to her time at CNET, Macy was featured in The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer, INDY Week, and other state and national publications. In each article, Macy helps readers get the most out of their home and wellness. When Macy isn't writing, she's volunteering, exploring the town or watching sports.
ExpertiseMacy covers a variety of topics across CNET's Home and Wellness teams, including home security, smart home tech, fitness, nutrition, travel, lifestyle and more.Credentials
Macy has been working for CNET for coming on 2 years. Prior to CNET, Macy received a North Carolina College Media Association award in sports writing.
Wildfires have become a recurring feature of North American summers, especially on the West Coast. While wildfire season usually peaks in August, the ongoing wildfires raging in Canada has caused smoke to drift, smothering many metro areas of the US in hazy, hazardous smoke over the last several weeks.
That smoke takes a toll on air quality and creates breathing hazards for both healthy people and those with existing respiratory issues. And though populations who live near the fires are at the highest risk, there may be impacts felt by people who live far away, depending on how the wind blows. Whether you're currently facing poor air quality due to the Canadian wildfires or you live in a wildfire-prone area, air purifiers are one way to address air quality issues.
Sometimes referred to as air cleaners, air purifiers are designed to remove polluting particles such as dust, pollen, pet dander, mold spores and, importantly, smoke. Though manufacturers are not allowed to market these devices as health products in the US, our hands-on testing has shown some of them to be effective in filtering harmful substances from the air -- especially if they use a HEPA filter. Here's how they work, and what to keep in mind when shopping for the best air purifier. You should also make sure your air purifier is in the right place and is clean to ensure it's working properly.
At its most basic function, portable air purifiers and air filters remove pollutants from the air around you and in your home. Indoor air pollutants fall into two main categories:
Particulate matter: Biological pollutants like mold spores, dust mites, bacteria, pet dander, viruses and smoke.
Gaseous pollutants: Pollutants like paints, varnishes, adhesives and pesticides. Especially dangerous gaseous pollutants are sometimes referred to as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are often man-made and are highly toxic, causing damage to the liver, kidneys or central nervous system, as well as leading to certain cancers or memory and vision issues.
Ideally, you would take steps to avoid introducing these airborne particles in the first place, but in situations like wildfires, it's out of your control and you must take steps to prevent negative health effects.
How does an air purifier work?
Air purifiers remove pollutants, particles and gasses from the air using one of three common methods: filtration, electrostatic precipitation and ionizing. Notably, the EPA warns about the risk of ozone created by some electrostatic and ionizing air purifiers, and some states like California even restrict the sale of ozone-producing air purifiers. Experts agree using filter-based air purifiers is healthier and more effective than ozone generators, so that's the method we'll focus on throughout this article.
The most effective form of air filtration -- and likely the one you've heard the most about -- is a HEPA filter, which stands for high-efficiency particulate absorber. These pleated mechanical air filters pull in the air in your home and move it through the filter with a circulating fan. When the air moves through the filters, any pollutants or particles are caught in the filter, and then the clean air is pushed back out, so you have clean air to breathe.
This type of air filter is reported to remove at least 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and any airborne particles from the air. HEPA filters do a better job than standard air filters because they are designed to catch finer particles and purify the air more thoroughly.
In addition to using an air filter, you can keep your indoor air clean by vacuuming regularly, not smoking inside and allowing fresh air in on nice days. Be sure to also regularly change out your air purifier's filters to guarantee it purifies effectively.
How do I buy an air purifier?
Air purifiers range in price from under $100 to well over $1,000. The price differential usually depends on how much air (how many cubic feet) the device is able to purify thoroughly. Most models are designed to sit on the floor, but you can find tabletop models and even wall-mounted designs for air filtration in your home.
When it comes to purchasing a portable air cleaner, the EPA suggests you base your decision on the size of the room where you will use the air purifier. This means you'll need to read the product descriptions carefully to be sure you get an air filtration system big enough to fit your space. Larger models will likely cost more and use more energy, but it's necessary to really make sure your air is filtered properly.
There are a few ways to be confident you're picking a good air purifier. You might see the abbreviation for clean air delivery rate (CADR) on an air purifier's packaging. This value is a measure of how quickly the air purifier can deliver clean air back into your space. The higher the CADR, the more quickly the air pollutants are removed, though some manufacturers have suggested this lab testing method isn't an accurate simulation of how air filtration would work in an average home.
Air purifiers and HVAC filters are also measured by the minimum efficiency reporting value scale, where the lowest rating is 1 and the highest is 20. HEPA filters rate between 17 and 20. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) recommends at least a 13 on the MERV scale for smoke mitigation. If you're in the market for an air purifier, look for a higher score on this scale if you're looking to mitigate serious breathing concerns like asthma and allergies, and wildfire smoke.
CNET has tested many air purifiers over the years. If smoke from wildfires is currently affecting your home or you live in a wildfire-prone region, consider purchasing one of these tested air purifiers to improve the indoor air quality until outdoor air quality improves.
While the devastation of wildfires can be harrowing, there are many steps you can take to protect yourself, your home and your loved ones. Here are some additional resources: