Can N95 respirators be recycled?

An N95 respirator is a face covering that is considered to be a crucial component of personal protective equipment and is considered to be the best respirator for protection against airborne particulates. Since the mask is considered to be a PPE, it is used by construction workers, firefighters, healthcare workers, and people working in laboratories. The first-ever N95 to be used was created by the American multinational conglomerate 3M and got approval in the year of 1972. The first N95 respirator’s main objective was to protect the construction workers.

Use of N95s as PPE

A piece of personal protective equipment is defined as any accessory that protects an individual against certain hazards. These hazards, in most cases, are fatal and could damage one’s health permanently and could even lead to death. To elaborate it further, hazmat suits, surgical masks, N95 respirators, helmets, etc. are considered to be some common PPE items. By using these PPE items, a person will have protection against hazards and will remain safe. For instance, if a construction worker doesn’t wear a helmet, he may encounter an injury. Similarly, if a healthcare worker doesn’t wear a face mask during surgical procedures, they will inhale harmful pathogens which will affect their health adversely.

Therefore, PPE items are necessary to protect one’s self from injuries and other harms. In addition to this, surgical masks and N95 respirators are crucial PPE items for healthcare workers across the globe. Although surgical masks are the more widely used face-covering in medical settings, the use of N95 respirators is recommended during emergencies and pandemics. This is because N95 respirators are more efficient in filtering out airborne particulates than surgical masks. The respirator’s efficiency is highly attributed to the mask’s seal fit, its claim of filtering out 95% of all airborne particulates, and its ability to filter out particulates up-to-the size of 0.3 microns.

Usage during the pandemic

The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic immensely increased the importance of N95 respirators among healthcare workers as well as the general public. Since N95’s were deemed to be the only respirator that could be effective in preventing the spread of the novel virus, its popularity was at an all-time high. As the virus began to spread even more rapidly, the need for this particular PPE was also on the rise. However, as the demand began to increase, the shortage of this product also began to increase which also provided a gateway for price gougers to sell this product at an unreasonably high price. This further served as an obstacle in making N95 respirators available to those who required it the most, i.e. the healthcare workers and the essential workers.

Price gouging and non-availability of this respirator served as a prelude to the actual problem which was the healthcare workers being ripped off their right to protection. Due to the non-availability hospitals could not facilitate their healthcare workers with the provision of an N95 and as a result of this, the frontline workers' lives were in peril and many even contracted the virus and departed this world due to the negligence of the higher authorities.

Why the re-use of N95 respirators is not recommended?

Before the pandemic, the price of a normal N95 respirator was $1 only. However, after the pandemic emerged the price of this same respirator increased up-to six times. So if a hospital had to facilitate its workers and provide them with an N95 they had to pay 6 times more than the original price. In addition to this, these same costly respirators are to be changed each day since these masks are disposable and cannot be used for an extended period. However, the shortage of this respirator and the price gouging issue prompted hospitals to direct their staff to start recycling N95 respirators.

The strategy for reusing N95 respirators by the hospitals was highly risky since it could harm the worker’s health and is also not recommended by the CDC. The pandemic had driven everyone to the brink of insanity and people were struggling to maintain their mental and physical health at the time, especially the healthcare workers. The job of frontline workers during these unprecedented times was hard enough but having to deal with the shortage of PPE and reusing N95 respirators at the time was an-other hurdle altogether.

But the healthcare workers along with the CDC reckoned that re-using an N95 is still a much better option than not wearing a mask at all or wearing a surgical mask which is relatively less efficient than a recycled N95 respirator even. In light of this, the CDC allowed the extended use or reusing of N95 respirators and even went on to prescribe tried and tested methods of decontaminating an N95 respirator. The CDC recommends decontaminating N95 respirators by heating them with four of the prescribed chemical substances. Even though the CDC has allowed the recycling of an N95, it should be noted that it is recommended during dire circumstances only.

Conclusion

N95 respirators are regarded as the most efficient face masks when it comes to seeking protection against the COVID-19. Hence, these respirators were recommended for healthcare workers by the CDC and the WHO. But the shortage of these face masks left healthcare workers with no choice but to opt for reusing N95 masks. Although the CDC allowed the extended use of N95s after decontaminating them, it is still not recommended under normal circumstances.

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