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Local stores sell out of air purifiers, N95 breathing masks

Air purifiers and breathing masks are sold out or in short supply at stores across Sonoma County, and despite the rain forecast for Wednesday, retail managers say the demand remains high.

“There are lots of people that come in for purifiers and get turned down,” said Mike Pierre, general manager at the Mission Ace Hardware & Lumber on Sonoma Highway.

Commonly used to filter allergens and second-hand tobacco smoke, air purifiers rarely sold in the past. They're now becoming more of a household essential in the era of repeated wildfires and smoky skies.

“That's an ongoing discussion people are having,” said Rob Bamford, air pollution control officer and executive officer of the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District.

When smoke from the Butte County fire crept into Sonoma County on Nov. 8, the Mission Ace had a handful of purifiers and about 500 to 600 N95 breathing masks - leftover stock from the October 2017 North Bay fires. Within two days of the Camp fire, the purifiers and masks were sold out, Pierre said.

“We're going to stock a lot more of those” in the future, Pierre said. “Distributors were just overwhelmed.”

Air purifier sales also increased at Sebastopol Hardware Center. Four were sold last November, while 27 have been sold so far this month.

“It's really hard for us to get them. Distributors don't have a huge stock of purifiers,” said Kelsey Allen, digital media specialist at Sebastopol Hardware Center. “Traditionally, there's not a huge demand for them.

“I think from last year's fires people are definitely more aware and want cleaner air,” she added. “This year the smoke is just sitting a lot more.”

Sebastopol Hardware typically stocks about four purifiers at a time, and sell maybe one every few months. Recently, the store set limits for how many N95 masks each customer can purchase - about five to 10 a person depending on stock, Allen said.

“We're trying to make sure everyone can get one,” she said.

Jennifer Granucci, assistant manager at Friedman's Home Improvement in Santa Rosa, said the store sold out of purifiers the first day of smoke from the Camp fire. The store had about 390 masks in stock mid-Monday.

Big box stores around Sonoma County also have reportedly sold out of air purifiers. Costco shoppers in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park were told air purifiers were being sent to Chico, where air quality is much worse.

Bamford said his office has air quality monitors inside and out. When the outdoor monitor recently showed an Air Quality Index level of 175, the indoor monitor read 55. He had two air purifiers running in the building, purchased from Amazon.

Air Quality Index is on a scale of zero to 500, with the “good” level at zero to 50 up to the “hazardous” level at 300-500.

“We've noticed with our monitor that in fact it works if you size them up correctly,” Bamford said.

He recommended consumers be alert to square-footage ratings and make sure purifiers have HEPA, or high-efficiency particulate air, filters.

Some customers unable to find purifiers in local stores or impatient with various wait times for online orders have resorted to makeshift purifiers, sticking furnace filters to the back of box fans where air is sucked in, according to local hardware store managers.

“It's not a bad idea,” Pierre said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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