The topic of ‘masks” has become one of the biggest aspects of our lives for close to two years. Most accept that wearing a mask will provide some benefit in navigating the current crisis. After all, a common image of doctors or nurses is one where a cloth face covering is part of their daily work attire. Some type of barrier must provide some benefit … right? Well, unfortunately it’s not as easy as that.
Firefighters, hazardous response personnel, industrial workers, and veterans who received Nuclear, Biological Chemical defense training have a good understanding of the underlying principles involved in respiratory protection.
The first element of the discussion is, who are we trying to protect, ourselves or others? In the realm of emergency response and industrial environments respiratory protection is designed to protect ourselves from breathing in chemically hazardous vapors or particulate matter. Very detailed and internationally accepted standards and procedures are contained in the American National Standards Institutes “Practices For Respiratory Protection. “ For the sake of this discussion let us focus on air-purifying protection methods.
Assuming that there is enough oxygen in a potentially hazardous space, air purification methods are important, but the concentration of a contaminant must still be within the capabilities of the filters used on a mask.
There are two types of filtration media. Charcoal-type filters are designed to filter/neutralize organic vapors such as gasoline vapors. Tight efficiency particulate filters are designed to filter out particulates such as asbestos, dusts, smoke etc. The safest to use in the response world is a combination filter which combines both of these features. When it comes to filtration the high efficiency filter will filter a particulate size of 0.3 microns. The size of the COVID virus is about 0.125 microns, approximately half the size of the smallest opening in the filter.
Air purifying filters in the emergency response/industrial environments are fitted to half face or full face respirator masks that have rubber face seals. To legally use these in an official capacity the wearers must be fit tested to ensure the rubber seal does not allow the breathing in of a contaminant past the seal. That is why facial hair is not allowed.
These half and full face masks are assigned protection factors which allow the wearer to be in a hazardous environment above a concentration that would otherwise not be harmful. For a full face respirator the protection factor is 100. For the half face the protection factor is 10. Within the ANSI standard the following statement appears “A fabric covering (facelet) available from some manufacturers shall not be used unless approved for use with respirator.” We were taught in the Coast Guard and Navy that cloth masks were essentially useless. The ANSI standard reinforces that fact.
All respirators, regardless if they are air purifying or positive pressure self contained breathing apparatus will have exhalation valves. What goes in must come out and the used air will not be coming out of any other orifice in your body other than your nose or mouth.. Any face covering without the valves will simply allow the air to be exhaled past the edges. Try this simple test in a couple of weeks when it is cold. Put on any type of “mask” outside, breath in and then breathe out. Observe what comes through and past the sides of your mask.
So then, what about medical personnel and their masks? For a surgeon these are intended to inhibit the exhalation of droplet size particles into an open wound, or to inhibit the breathing in of droplet size particles from another person who has coughed or sneezed. The droplet size from a cough is approximately 450 microns. From a sneeze the size is approximately 150 microns. An N95 should filter down to 0.3 microns, still twice as large as the smaller 0.125 micron virus. And again, exhaled air is coming out one way or another. The use of blue paper masks, cloth designer masks and bandanas will block some droplets from a cough or sneeze but mechanically will do little to block or filter out the respiratory soup of droplets, water vapor and viral particles that may be lurking in ones exhaled breath.
As I wrote in early April, truth and discernment are the hardest things we face. All of the interesting observations I mentioned in that article were revealed to be true over the last eight months. Research and reading since then indicates the 6 feet social distancing standard is not based on science. In fact, any enclosed room of any size will expose you to the virus if it is present because most of the air is trapped. On the other hand there is zero chance of breathing in any virus that will get you sick if you are in the great outdoors.
A lot of the mask wearing I observe around town is sad because it is based upon ignorance and fear. For example, people in cars by themselves wearing masks, people walking on Central Avenue wearing masks, young children walking home from the school bus still wearing their dirty cloth masks.
Doctors complain that people are still getting sick, yet do nothing but send positive patients home without treatment until they are on deaths door. Shame on those in official capacities who intentionally offer false hope.
George Burns is a Fredonia resident.
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