Can you add your straps to your N95 masks?

With the ongoing coronavirus entering the next phase and different countries all over coming up again with regulations that will help tackle the situation as cases of victims are continually identified all over. It is now more important than before to adhere to the safety and protective measures that are put up by different governments according to the geographical location and evidence supporting them.

Among these protective measures and one of the important ones, is the wearing of face masks to prevent and reduce the transmission of the deadly virus. The recommendation from health regulating agencies such as the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is that facemasks should be worn all the time especially in the public and in places where physical or social distancing could not be observed. Such places include cinemas, stores, conferences, and supermarts, etc.

Though there are different facemasks out there, the mask of choice for most people is the N95 masks. This has resulted in an increased demand for these masks all over. However, the global supply isn’t enough to meet up with the world’s demand. This is one of the reasons why the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised that N95 masks should be reserved for health care workers, emergency first responders, and other frontline workers.

Similarly, because supply is not enough to meet up with demand, a lot of shady dealings sprang up to cater to the gaps caused by the insufficient supply. Though there is a decrease in supply worldwide due to many factors such as a long time of production, high cost of production, faulty supply chain, and misrepresentations,  countries are trying all they can to make sure that these high in demand facemasks are always available to the essential workers.

What are N95 masks?

N95 mask or respirator is a common name which is abbreviated for N95 filtering facepiece respirator which is a particulate facepiece respirator which satisfies the United State National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) requirements for N95 classification of air filtration which simply means that it filters at least 95 percent of airborne particles.

It is good to point out that this NIOSH standard does not require that the respirator be resistant to oil or oily substance. This requirement meant for different equipment known as the P95. It is the most common particulate-filtering facepiece respirator. A particulate facepiece respirator is an example of a mechanical filter respirator, a kind of a respirator that offers protection against particulates but not against gases or vapors.

To know if an N95 mask is authentic, you should seek 


out for a NIOSH text or logo, filter class designation of N95, a TC approval number, etc. The approval number must be listed on the NIOSH Certified Equipment List (CEL) or the NIOSH Trusted Source page. It should also have a headband and not an ear loop.

N95 respirators are most of the time treated the same way as certain respirators that are regulated by institutions outside the United States. These respirators are certified by these institutions using slightly different criteria from that of the N95 masks. These criteria include filter efficiency, test agent, permissible pressure drop and flow rate, etc. For example, FFP2 respirators of the European Union are required to meet at least 94 percent filtration while the China KN95 respirators are expected to be up to at least 95 percent.

Contrary to this, it was discovered by NIOSH that some products that have KN95 labels on them were not up to standard and failed to meet these requirements. Therefore, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada demand such KN95 respirators that fail to meet the standard requirements be relabelled as “face masks” instead of “respirators” when they are sold in the United States or Canada.

Before being used, a medical evaluation must be done because N95 masks can restrict the level of breathing a little. There is some underlying medical condition which demands such evaluation before use. They include heart conditions, lung disease, and psychological conditions such as claustrophobia.  In some countries such as the United States, a medical evaluation is required once before a fit test and usage. These might be repeated in special instances such as when adverse signs and symptoms are observed.

The use of N95 masks or respirators helps to protect against at least 95 percent of very small particles of bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants such as dust and fumes. Its protection is against particles that are airborne i.e particles that are conducted from one site to another via the air. In this case, the protection is provided for the user against invading particles from the immediate environment.  

Can N95 masks be reused?

In times of crisis such as the current Coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended strategies for optimizing the use of N95 masks in healthcare settings. According to the recommendation, N95 masks can be used beyond the designated life by the manufacturer, even though components such as the straps and nose bridge material may degrade which makes it important to perform a seal check.

Also, it is said that the mask can be reused for a limited amount of time after it is removed given that it has not been used during aerosol-generating procedures and is not contaminated with the patient’s body fluids. This is because it increases the risk of contaminating the surface with pathogens.

The respirator manufacturer may recommend a maximum number of times the mask can be donned, but if there is no guidance from the manufacturer, it is advised that N95 mask usage should be limited to five times.

Can you modify your N95 mask by adding your straps?

\Many are of the concern that they can change the straps of their N95 masks which might have been damaged due to reuse. According to the National Institute on Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), when an approved N95 mask is modified with replacements that are not approved by the organization, it means that the N95 masks have been altered and are no longer the previously approved ones.

According to NIOSH, altered respirators are non-approved modifications to a NIOSH-certified respirator. The modifications include using replacement parts that are not original manufacturer parts or modifying the certified respirator in an unapproved manner.

When NIOSH certifies a respirator, it takes into consideration all the parts. Every part of the mask is evaluated before approval is given. So when any of the parts are modified using an un-approved replacement, it renders the certification and approval void. The certification only applies to a respirator as it was originally tested. The slightest modification may affect its fit, form, and function.

Therefore, when you use your strap on your initially approved N95 masks, it renders its approval invalid. This simply means in essence that you are using a facemask not an N95 mask. The only solution is when you go for an approved strap by the NIOSH; there is no way your strap can be evaluated to ensure that the fit, form, and function will not be affected. 

If your N95 mask strap is damaged, you have not used the mask up to five times as recommended by the United States Food and Drug Administration, and you wish to replace it, going for manufacturers replacement or approved parts by NIOSH is the best option. Also, you must remember to perform the seal check whenever you want to don your N95 masks, which should be done after the approved repair of your face mask as well.

Conclusion

The use of an unapproved modified N95 mask is not safe, as it renders ineffective the function of the mask. Making use of this mask puts the health of the user at risk because there is no way of knowing whether your strap meets the stringent testing and the quality assurance requirements of NIOSH.

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