Though protective masks have been strongly recommended for preventing COVID-19 transmission, recent research is shedding light on potential risks for mask-wearers. In May, The Journal of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety published a study revealing that tight-fitting masks may emit harmful toxins.
Testing various types of masks
Scientists in South Korea tested various masks, including cotton and KF94 masks (similar to N95 masks), and found that KF94 masks contained four types of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at concentrations 22.9-147 times higher than other fabric masks. KF94 masks also contained 14 times more VOC particles than cotton masks.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are manmade chemicals commonly used in the production of paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants that evaporate at room temperature.
Inhaling them may cause the following:
Eyes, nose, and throat irritation.
Damage to the central nervous system and other organs.
Cancer (some cases in animals, and suspected or known cases in humans).
VOC concentrations can get worse
According to researchers, the concentration of VOCs in KF94 masks varies depending on the temperature and whether they have been taken out of their packaging. When the masks are exposed to a temperature of 104 F (40 C), the concentration increases by 119 to 299 percent. However, after 30 minutes of being removed from the packaging, the level decreases by 80 percent.
The authors of the study suggest that attention should be paid to VOCs and their effects on human health when using KF94 masks.
To reduce the risk of harm, they recommend opening the mask and allowing it to air out for at least 30 minutes before wearing it. This will reduce the concentration of VOCs to a safe level.
Toxicity and exhaustion syndrome
A study conducted in 2022 has revealed the presence of toxic chemicals in several masks and the potential risks of covering up. Phthalates, which are commonly used chemicals in masks, can disrupt the human endocrine system and negatively impact health.
While phthalates may offer flexibility and versatility to masks, choosing comfort over safety comes with a high cost.
Phthalates are added to the material in the form of an additive, rather than being chemically bonded to it.
This means that they can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, causing harm to reproductive and neurological development.
Researchers from China collected 56 mask samples from various countries and found harmful phthalates in all of them.
The results of the study, published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, suggest that nearly 90 percent of the samples contained potential carcinogens.
These findings indicate that the risks of masking may outweigh the benefits unless the types and levels of chemicals are managed to be within safe limits.
Here are the negative impacts of both surgical and N95 masks.
Decreased oxygen saturation.
Decreased minute ventilation.
Increased carbon dioxide in the blood.
Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature.
Higher levels of discomfort.
Shortness of breath.
“Masks interfered with O2-uptake and CO2-release and compromised respiratory compensation,” the review authors wrote.
“Outcomes independently validate mask-induced exhaustion-syndrome (MIES) and down-stream physio-metabolic dysfunctions. MIES can have long-term clinical consequences, especially for vulnerable groups. So far, several mask related symptoms may have been misinterpreted as long COVID-19 symptoms. In any case, the possible MIES contrasts with the WHO definition of health.”
The study was retracted a month later. The reason given for the retraction was that “the article does not meet the standards of editorial and scientific soundness for Frontiers in Public Health.”
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