The economic decline of most countries, mental health issues, countless deaths and illnesses, and the collapse of the healthcare system worldwide are just some of the negative effects that can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, one problem people are not paying attention to at the moment is the pollution disposable face masks are causing.
The bulk and wholesale purchases hospitals are needing to keep their workers protected are larger every day, and the demand is so high that the production of these items, including face shields, surgical masks, gloves, and gowns too, hasn’t been able to meet it. Each day, finding them for sale online or in physical stores is becoming more difficult.
In this article, we’ll discuss what the CDC says about the disposal of KN95 masks specifically, and why they’re necessary right now.
Understanding KN95 masks
You’ve probably heard or read about these masks on the news lately, with people often asking if there’s a difference between them and the popular N95 masks. This confusion comes from their very similar names, but although they share many other aspects besides just their names, they can’t be considered the same face mask, and we’ll explain why.
N95 masks are also known as N95 respirators because they’re part of the classification for respirators established by NIOSH, which is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. This federal agency regulates respirators inside the United States based on a classification and naming system they created, which uses a letter and a number to indicate the oil resistance and filtration rate of the respirator, respectively.
N95 masks are, according to this classification, those with no oil resistance and a filtration rate of 95%, which means they can filter out non-oil based airborne particles with that percentage of efficacy. They can filter out particles like dust, smoke, and viruses that include the flu virus and the coronavirus. KN95 masks have the same characteristics of no oil resistance and the same filtration rate, so what is the difference between the two?
After being manufactured, all respirators intended to be marketed as N95 ones have to be tested by NIOSH in the USA since this is the regulatory standard inside the country. They do tests on the respirator to make sure it will perform as an N95 mask. However, KN95 masks, even though they have the same qualities as N95 respirators, are not regulated by NIOSH.
KN95 masks follow a different regulatory standard used in China, and that is why they can’t be considered the same as N95 masks. However, due to their great similarities, they have been cleared to substitute N95 masks in healthcare settings when these aren’t available, and many models got an Emergency Use Authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
KN95 masks, like surgical and N95 masks, are disposable face masks. This means that after being used they have to be discarded, and aren’t traditionally designed to be reused or shared with other people. However, as a result of the high demand for respirators during the COVId-19 pandemic and the lack of availability of enough of them, the CDC has allowed the decontamination and reuse of disposable respirators. But, the first choice will always be the use of new ones.
How to dispose of them according to the CDC
In the USA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers all the information regarding the pandemic and the use of face masks. Everything related to the proper use of both disposable and reusable masks and respirators is covered by them, including the information directed to both the general public and the healthcare field.
On their website, they provide information on the proper use of respirators, which includes KN95 masks. This includes how to put them on and take them off and discard them. According to them, respirators must be handled by the straps at all times, without touching the inside or outside of the face-piece. Afterward, they must be discarded in the corresponding container.
Since respirators are only supposed to be used in the healthcare field, it’s easy to know where the corresponding container is as they are labeled and healthcare providers are trained for this. But, if for some reason these masks need to be used by the general public (although it’s not recommended by them), they don’t offer information on how to dispose of them.
You can follow the recommendations made by the Brazilian Sanitary and Environmental Engineering Association (ABES). They recommend placing disposable masks in two plastic bags, one inside the other, and place them with the rest of the domestic waste. The bags are meant to protect the workers who handle these wastes as they represent biological hazards to them.
Face masks and pollution during the pandemic
Since the earlier days of the pandemic, many environmental groups have been warning about the negative effects the increased use of disposable masks can have on the environment. Large amounts of face masks and gloves have already been found polluting oceans in Hong Kong and Greece, and as the pandemic progresses, this problem is increasing.
The CDC has recommended since the beginning of the pandemic for the general public to use cloth masks, including kids above the age of 2. This is primarily to make sure the medical-grade masks and respirators are reaching the hospitals and frontline workers. Nonetheless, this practice will also reduce considerably the negative effects on the environment resulting from the pandemic.