The coronavirus pandemic has been happening for over nine months, and now we’re very familiar with lots of medical terms we didn’t know before all this. N95 masks have been without a doubt the center of attention during this emergency, with news about shortages, scarcity, and scams flooding our television or computer screen. There’s also been quite a lot of discussion about the effectiveness of the mask, which adds another level of uncertainty to this scary situation.
COVID-10 is a respiratory disease spread by a virus that has been named the SARS-CoV-2. Like other respiratory viruses in the coronavirus genus, this virus is spread through the air when fluids containing them are released in the form of droplets when the infected person coughs, talks, or sneezes. When they reach a healthy person’s mouth or nose, the virus can be inhaled and start colonizing the respiratory tract. This is why face masks have been one of the main resources for virus control.
N95 masks in particular are considered the best for virus protection, and we know that they’ve been hard to find since the beginning of the year. With all the efforts to build a stockpile, the question of whether or not they expire is a very important one. In this article, we’ll analyze the answer to this question.
First of all, what are N95 masks?
N95 masks can also be referred to as N95 respirators since they’re a type of respirator according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH for short. They’re an institution, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with the job to test and make sure each respirator inside the United States meets the criteria for each respirator type inside their classification.
Respirators are important in work settings where respiratory hazards are present. These are particles that when inhaled chronically or acutely they can be detrimental to the person’s health, leading to serious health conditions that include lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
The NIOSH classification names respirators with a two-part system: the first part of the name indicates the resistance to oil with a letter, and the second part indicates the filtration rate with a number. The name ‘N95’ means that the respirator isn’t resistant to oil and that it can filter out at least 95% of all the airborne particles in the air.
These two characteristics give high antiviral properties to N95 masks because viruses don’t contain any oil, therefore they’re good options for protection against the flu, COVID-19, and other infectious diseases. They’re also effective to filter out dust and coal smoke, but they can’t filter out particles that are smaller like vapors or gases, or those that contain oil like glycerin.
Healthcare workers are recommended to use these masks because they’re in very high exposure to the virus, and these are much more efficient than surgical or medical masks, and reusable cloth masks. Healthcare professionals can also use KN95 masks when N95 respirators aren’t available, and wear face shields on top of them for more protection.
Expiration dates on N95 masks
When managing the personal protective equipment (PPE) inventories, it’s very important to be aware that most disposable face masks and respirators have a shelf life, which is essentially an expiration date. These items shouldn’t be used after this date has been exceeded. We know it’s a little hard to understand why an item like a respirator can have an expiration date, so we’ll explain this.
N95 masks need to filter out harmful particles from the air to protect the wearer from them, this is their function. To achieve their goal, they contain a filtering material that traps these particles, which prevents them from entering the airways of the user. Respirators are required to fit tightly around the face to make sure there’s no room for leakage of air which ensures that all the air that is being inhaled is filtered through the respirator.
After a certain time, the materials with which the masks are made start to degrade, particularly the nose foam and the straps. This affects the fit of the face mask, leaving space for leakage. So, after surpassing the designated shelf life, a respirator won’t work at its full potential, and they won’t meet the requirements established by NIOSH.
3M N95 masks, like the 3M 8210 and the 3M 8511, have an expiration date that varies depending on the respirator type, the date it was manufactured, the filter media, and the materials used. 3M N95 masks have the shelf life information on the side or the bottom of the packaging accompanied by a symbol of an hourglass.
This section can include other important storage information, like the temperatures at which the expiration date is applied. This is because the conditions with which they’re stored can influence the shelf life of the respirator. Inside the USA the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends the following:
- Being stored in the original packaging
- Being stored away from areas with high dust contamination, extreme temperatures, damaging chemicals, excessive moisture, or sunlight.
Another big recommendation to make the most use out of the shelf life of a respirator is to have good inventory management. This includes stock rotation, which is the activity of replacing expired respirators with usable ones. Recycling and donating to organizations in need are good options to reduce waste.
As we mentioned, N95 masks and other medical-grade respirators should be reserved for healthcare workers since they are scarce. You can find other alternatives for sale online, with options to buy in bulk and wholesale, and masks in a smaller size for kids over the age of 2. Anyone who uses any type of face-covering is doing their part!