N95 masks represent one of the most important protective items healthcare workers need during the pandemic to prevent infection with COVID-19, as they’re considered the most effective face mask for this purpose. This high value has made them scarce in many places around the United States, since the demand has been so high the production hasn’t been able to meet it.
But, since this face mask became one of the main topics of discussion, the concern about the breathability while wearing them has been one of the most controversial parts of this mask. The belief that face masks in general result in carbon dioxide accumulation has been a common one among people during the pandemic, and it’s one that has been debunked many times.
In this article, we’ll explain how N95 masks work, why it’s not possible for carbon dioxide to be trapped inside them, and the effects these masks can have on a person’s respiratory health.
How do N95 masks filter out particles in the air?
These masks are also known by the name N95 respirator, since they belong inside the classification for respirators established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). According to the naming system this institution uses, N95 masks can filter out 95% of the airborne particles in the air, which are those with a size of 0.3 micrometers in diameter, as long as these don’t contain any oil, because they’re not resistant to it.
The multiple uses these masks can have in different work industries are due to the fact particles with these characteristics are diverse and many of them are considered respiratory hazards in the workplace. For example, dust and smoke can be found in construction or mining sites, and in healthcare settings, viruses like the flu or, most recently, the novel coronavirus.
For their efficacy with bioaerosols, these masks have been widely used in the healthcare field. They’re actually considered the best one to protect people from the SARS-CoV-2, even in situations of close contact with COVID-19 patients, like the one’s healthcare providers are in every day. These antiviral properties can’t be found in other face masks, like surgical masks or cloth masks.
The filter media inside these masks is made up of a fabric with multiple little holes, which are so small they can trap very small particles. To enhance this filtration, and allow manufacturers to increase the size of these holes and make them more breathable, electrostatic chargers are added to the filter to attract and trap particles with the opposite charge, no matter their size.
N95 masks do this with the air you inhale and exhale, protecting the wearer from the particles in the environment, and also those around them from the particles they might be exhaling. To make sure all the air flows through the mask and the filter media, N95 respirators require a very tight fit to the face to form a seal that prevents any air leakage.
So, N95 masks are an indispensable part of the personal protective equipment (PPE) used by medical workers during the pandemic, which involves several layers including also surgical masks, KN95 masks, face shields, gowns, and gloves, among others. Some models are more breathable than others, for example, among the 3M N95 masks, the 3M 8511 model has an exhalation valve, which improves breathability, but is not safe for virus control. The 3M 8210 and 3M 1860, don’t have this valve.
N95 masks are tested and approved by NIOSH before being marketed as an N95 mask in the USA. Among the tests this institution performs there’s a breathability test, which makes sure these masks are generally safe for workers.
How much CO2 is trapped in N95 masks?
As you know, we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. We need oxygen for cellular respiration, a process used to obtain energy, which results in the production of carbon dioxide, a waste product that can be toxic in certain levels, and that is why we get rid of it through our lungs.
The increase of blood carbon dioxide levels above the ones considered safe is called hypercapnia. The symptoms of this condition include an altered mental state, irregular heartbeat, breathing difficulty, and a loss of consciousness. People have been fearing developing this condition with the use of face masks since the pandemic began, but is this possible?
A few studies have been performed years ago that could suggest this would be possible, specifically with N95 masks in healthcare workers. However, these studies have not been conclusive enough to make the statement of N95 masks causing hypercapnia. More studies are needed in this regard.
In general, carbon dioxide molecules are considered too small to be trapped by any face mask material, even the N95 mask filters. These masks don’t protect the wearer against gases, and carbon dioxide is a gas, so it’s not possible that they can filter this substance. Both oxygen and carbon dioxide can flow freely through this and any other less-filtering mask.
Think about it, surgeons and other healthcare providers can spend hours working with a face mask on and not experience any health issues, and they do this every day. But, it’s important to point out that, if you have any cardiovascular, respiratory, or any other health condition that may cause difficulty breathing, consulting with your healthcare provider before wearing N95 masks at work is recommended.
Lastly, we would like to remind our readers that N95 masks and other medical-grade face masks are currently being reserved for frontline workers. Hospitals need to buy these masks in bulk and wholesale, but they’re usually not found for sale online. Alternatively, reusable cloth masks re considered a good option for the general public, including kids above the age of 2, for public situations in which social distancing is achievable.