N95 masks are a first necessity right now with the outbreak of the COVID-19, the disease caused by the new species of coronavirus. This new infection was first reported in China in December of last year, and has since spread to the entire world, including the United States. People began to buy any medical and surgical supplies in bulk or wholesale, like face shields, gloves, KN95 masks, and of course, N95 masks.
The best piece of personal protective equipment for virus protection is the N95 mask, but this valuable item is becoming scarce all over the world. Shortages have already been reported all over the country, and healthcare workers are specially suffering the consequences. Let’s analyze these disposable face masks, why they’re so important, and how the scarcity of its raw materials is causing the shortages.
What are N95 masks?
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH, is the institution in charge of preventing any work-related illnesses or injuries. As such, they regulate all sorts of PPE, including respirators. For work fields in which workers are exposed consistently to respiratory hazards that can lead, in the long term, to serious health conditions, respirators are often required.
NIOSH created a classification for respirators according to a set of standards. The main two characteristics used to classify respirators are their resistance to oil, and their minimum particulate filtration efficacy. N95 masks are not resistant to oil, and filter out at least 95% of all airborne particles.
This makes them the best antiviral protective supply, trapping viruses like the flu or the coronavirus, but it’s also optimal for filtering other particles, like smoke, dust, or gases.
What are the raw materials that are causing the shortage of N95 masks?
To obtain the fabric with which N95 masks are made of, a process called melt blown extrusion is performed. This process is used to produce a very specific type of fabric: non-woven fabric. This fabric is made of different types of polymers, mainly polypropylene.
Regular fabrics that we all know and use daily are made with natural materials that are threaded and woven together through weaving or knitting techniques, resulting in a fabric made of yarn from these natural materials, like cotton. Non-woven fabrics, as the name suggests, are not made through the same process of weaving or knitting, but instead use mechanical, thermic, or chemical processes to bind the material together.
The result is a web-like fabric with many beneficial properties, like absorbency, cushioning, filtering, sterility, liquid repellency, and bacterial barrier, among many others. This is why this type of fabric uses those processes instead of the traditional weaving or knitting techniques.
Because of all the properties non-woven materials have, they are used in the manufacturing of many products that agricultural, construction, automotive, and medical fields use daily. Some of the most notable products that use this material include HEPA filters, masks and respirators, disposable medical garbs like gowns and other coverings, coffee filters, and many sanitary products, among many other uses.
So, because the process to obtain this non-woven material is called melt blown extrusion, the material is also called “melt blown material”, which is how it’s been widely called on the news while covering the scarcity of this material that is causing the shortages of N95 masks.
Scarcity of non-woven materials is causing the N95 mask shortage
With the pandemic in full capacity, non-woven material manufacturers have been pushed to increase their production, which has been straining the work field. The supply chain has reportedly gone crazy for this raw material, which was experienced with the SARS virus years earlier to a smaller degree, but this doesn’t compare to that situation, according to Nozi Hamidi, the vice president for marketing and business development at SWM International. This company is said to be one of the roughly two dozen domestic melt blow material manufacturers in the United States.
Experts say that the high demand of this material can take it away from other uses, including other types of medical products. Before the pandemic, the use of this material for filters was around one third of the production. Now, workers in these factories are working harder than ever to increase the production of this material to supply the need for N95 masks in the USA.
The melt blow material is considered to be the most important part of the N95 mask. The material forms thousands of small holes that are responsible for filtering at least 95% of the airborne particles. And while it’s the most important material, it’s also the hardest to make. Companies can’t simply make new lines of production, they have to be sure that the particles won’t pass through the material.
The machines are made only by around six companies in the whole world and they’re expensive, big, and involve a lot of technology. Precision, air handling, electronics, all of these difficult techniques make buying a machine a 12-month process.
Some American companies have even explored the possibility of using glass fiber instead of melt blown material. This material was used many years ago to produce N95 respirators a long time before non-woven fabric was the standard. Respirators made from this material are not as comfortable, but could be the short-term solution to this problem.
We urge our readers to stay protected and to leave medical-grade face masks for our healthcare workers. There are many reusable face coverings for sale online, and even models in a smaller size for kids. If you’re a high-risk person and need medical-grade protection, you can also easily find 3M N95 masks online, like the 3M 8210 or 3M 8511. Stay safe, and you’ll be protecting everyone around you.