For most of this year, medical personal protective equipment, also known by its acronym PPE, has been the center of attention. Crucial items like gloves, gowns, goggles, face shields, and particularly face masks, have been talked about on the news constantly. But, among all of them, one item has stood out as the real protagonist of the PPE discussion: N95 masks, the face masks necessary for healthcare workers to be safe during the pandemic.
This mask has been considered the most effective one for virus protection, and shortages across the country show just how valuable they can be. But, there are certain particles they can’t filter out, so in this article, we’ll talk all about this face mask, and specifically about the particles they can’t offer protection from.
NIOSH is the acronym used to refer to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. This federal agency, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was created as the institution to make recommendations and inform people, based on science and research, that can prevent occupational injuries or illnesses.
The institute is also in charge of classifying respirators, and this classification is considered the standard for respirator filtration in the USA. NIOSH tests and certifies that respirators meet the criteria to be named as each type of respirator inside this classification. The two characteristics they consider to name respirators are:
- Resistance to oil: this indicates if the respirator can resist damage and filter out particles that contain oil molecules. The letter at the beginning of the respirator name indicates this, and they can be named an N, R, or P class respirator, meaning that they’re not resistant, resistant, or oil-proof, respectively.
- Filtration efficacy: this characteristic is represented by the minimum particulate filtration efficacy, which is a percentage that indicates the number of particles a filter can trap from the air. This a number at the end of the respirator name, which can be either 95, 99, or 100%.
Based on this, the classification has nine possible respirators that result from the combination of the three different alternatives of each characteristic. N99, P95, and R100 are some examples of possible respirator types. And, as you might have already guessed, N95 masks are a type of respirator in this classification, meaning that they’re not resistant to oil and can filter out 95% of the airborne particles in the environment.
For this reason, N95 masks have been considered the best disposable face mask for virus protection, and this antiviral property, which is higher than the one found in surgical/medical or reusable cloth masks, is due to it filtering out 95% of the non-oil based airborne particles in the air. Such particles include dust, smoke, certain minerals, but also viruses, like the flu or the coronavirus. Some of the most purchased models include 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8210 or the 3M 8511.
Many people confuse N95 masks with KN95 masks. Although both are considered to be equivalents, they’re not regulated under the same standards. KN95 masks are based on the Chinese standards, and even though they’re very similar to the United States’ standards, they’re not technically the same. However, they can be used as substitutes for N95 masks when these aren’t available. On the European standards, FFP2 respirators are considered the equivalents to N95 masks.
N95 masks need an approval stamp from NIOSH that indicates that the respirator was tested by them, and it met all the criteria for it to be considered N95. This is the only way to make sure the respirator is legitimate, and that anyone who uses it will have the level of protection it claims to offer. If the N95 mask was manufactured to be used in healthcare settings, approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also necessary.
N95 masks have a filter that can filter out particles with a diameter of 0.3 microns, which is equivalent to 300 nanometers. These are particles considered to be airborne, but there are certain particles these respirators don’t protect from. Some of these include hazardous vapors and gases, or particles that contain oil, like lubricants, cutting fluids, and glycerine.
The importance of N95 respirators during the COVID-19 pandemic 150
While the majority of the cases are asymptomatic or mild, there’s a percentage of cases with a considerable size in which the virus can be more life-threatening, severely affecting the lungs and other organs as well. The most vulnerable people include older people, immunocompromised patients, and those with certain comorbidities like diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
This has led to healthcare centers becoming overwhelmed with the number of patients they need to take care of, and ultimately collapsing, as we’ve seen happen in many countries around the world. N95 masks are a crucial part of the PPE of healthcare workers, and they need these masks to be safe at work.
N95 masks have been scarce since the beginning of the pandemic, and the new surge of coronavirus cases is threatening healthcare centers to have to face it without the proper protection. In many states, these workers have had to reuse these masks or use substitutes for them.
As citizens, our job right now is to cover our mouth and nose with any type of face-covering, leaving medical-grade ones to the essential workers on the frontlines. You can find many reusable cloth masks for sale online, available to buy in bulk and wholesale.