The question of N95 mask reuse came into existence due to the N95 mask shortage created by the pandemic. With an alarming number of novel coronavirus cases, the N95 mask shortage was deemed to happen. But, up to which point can an N95 mask be reused, considering the decontamination processes that have grown in popularity from research? Read on.
Why do we need to reuse an N95 mask?
The N95 mask shortage affected even the United States. Healthcare workers in the USA have sought antiviral measures in order to stay protected. This may include having to reuse their N95 mask with the thought that any protection is better than nothing. But, can the efficiency of a reused N95 mask filter dust, smoke, and airborne particles enough to keep one protected against the flu causing virus?
It helps that the N95 mask supply being reused is from a reputable N95 mask source. 3M N95 masks and N95 respirators like the 1860 N95 mask, 3M 8511, 3M 8210, as well as other medical and surgical face mask types are more in use today than ever. A disposable face mask rather than a reusable cloth face mask is preferred for its efficiency. That, and face shields on top of the mask.
If not an American-made N95 mask, the next best option would be kn95 masks which are said to have the same filter efficiency. This N95 mask alternative may be for sale online in every size and available the bulk or wholesale.
But, many in the U.S. still choose to buy the N95 mask for its many uses, although during the pandemic the use of the N95 mask is prioritized for healthcare use, so much so that even kids are prohibited from wearing the N95 mask.
Lack of certainty for N95 mask reuse
Because of the N95 mask, scientists responded by conducting studies. However, according to a National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine Report in 2006, no simple modifications may be used during the manufacturing process that would enable the disposable N95 mask to be reused without risks or even increased risk of infection.
Yet, a more recent study came more positive. Sterilization and reprocessing of the N95 mask may be viable. However, the number of times the N95 mask may safely be sterilized and reused is deduced to one time only. This would give a chance for the N95 mask supply to rise during the time the N95 mask supply is being reused.
There are also risks to N95 mask sterilization, even though it would be for a single cycle only. For instance, the use of ethylene oxide and hydrogen peroxide could be a viable option for N95 mask sterilization, but the N95 mask wearer could be at risk of exposure to residual ethylene oxide from the interior side of the N95 mask.
Not all N95 mask could be sterilized
Apparently, not all N95 mask models could be fit candidates for reuse. For instance, the 1860 N95 mask would be visibly distorted when it is steamed for sterilization. This would make the N95 mask unsuitable for reuse.
Now, if for single-cycle sterilization, some N95 mask models would be inefficient, the main concern would be how many times hospital systems have attempted to decontaminate their N95 mask supply for reuse.
Healthcare Frontline Workers against N95 mask reuse
So, there is no validated, scientific evidence saying multiple N95 mask reuse, sterilization, and decontamination are safe. Healthcare workers could be exposed and infected with the virus when such risks of N95 mask reuse are abused.
As such, healthcare workers are not trusting the sterilization and decontamination processes available. For instance, the union for nurses called National Nurses United disagrees with the practice of reprocessing as it goes against N95 mask manufacturer recommendations.
The said nurses union disagrees with the federal guidance from NIOSH and CDC on N95 mask reprocessing as well.
Possible N95 mask decontamination and sterilization processes
In Canada, some N95 mask sterilization facilities are being prepared. Three companies owned by Sotera Health have already begun working with the Canadian government to study different methods for the re-sterilization of PPE.
One such method uses gamma irradiation which is said to act as an effective method for the reduction and elimination of viruses.
In a similar vein, Mevex is another company researching towards the goal of N95 mask reuse. They have an electron accelerator that uses radiation to breakdown organisms and reduces the ability of the pathogens to reproduce. In doing so, killing bacteria. Heat-treating an N95 mask with processes using ultraviolet light could also kill microorganisms.
Saliva and dirt remain on the N95 mask
Some N95 mask sterilization processes that may be viable for the future cannot do the work perfectly. For instance, going through an electron accelerator, a soiled N95 mask that has saliva or dirt will have the dirt and saliva remaining on the N95 mask, albeit the N95 mask is sterile.
Further, an N95 mask that goes through radiation for sterilization would have the materials degraded. The N95 mask would then evidently be damaged. So, there should be something to mitigate the damage of radiation on the N95 mask sterilization process.
The fact that viruses get trapped in the depths of the N95 mask also increases the difficulty of penetrating deep into the trapped fibers of the N95 mask.
Thus, instead of N95 mask reuse, the N95 mask shortage should be alleviated as soon as possible. Healthcare systems should purchase N95 mask supplies as soon as available, and without delay.