Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, N95 masks have become one of the most valuable items for health care workers who are at the frontline. Shortages have already been reported in several states, and health care providers are the most affected people by this. By not having enough supplies, they are risking their lives to save others.
One of the big factors contributing to the shortage of the N95 mask is that it’s intended for single use only. This means that health care workers need large amounts of N95 masks to be completely safe. The invention of a reusable N95 mask would be the biggest breakthrough during this time. Let’s take a look at the information we have at hand.
Why are N95 masks not reusable?
N95 masks meet certain criteria to be classified as such. These standards are established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Only N95 masks that are approved by NIOSH are capable of providing full safety to their users. To be used as medical equipment, these masks also need additional approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
N95 masks have two major properties to be named like that: filtrating at least 95% of all airborne particles, and being non-resistant to oil. This makes the N95 respirator the optimal personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent the infection by the coronavirus.
These masks were designed to be used only once. Their lifespan is of approximately 8 to 12 hours of use and should be discarded after that time frame. The degradation of the materials that make the respirator makes it lose its filtrating properties, and they won’t work as effectively as if they were new.
Polypropylene is the plastic-like material of which the respirators are made of, and even though it’s very resistant, after more than 12 hours of use, that resistance decreases, and the N95 mask loses filtration efficacy, no longer meeting the standards set by NIOSH, and making them not as protective.
Even though reuse of this equipment is not generally recommended, we all know this is an emergency situation, and shortages can be life-threatening for both health care providers and patients alike. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a series of guidelines on how to safely and effectively prolong the lifespan of N95 masks.
These guidelines apply to medical, surgical, and dental workers, optimizing the supply of N95 masks they receive. They also recommend for the general public to use regular disposable face masks or homemade cloth masks, and leave the N95 masks to health care workers, who are at higher risk of getting infected.
A new reusable mask by MIT
Researchers of the engineering science at MIT along with the Brigham and Women’s Hospital have been working hard to get a solution to the N95 mask shortage. Today, they finally created an N95 mask that is designed to be sterilized, cleaned, reused. This means this could potentially be the first N95 respirator that is safe to be reused in any way.
The biggest difference between this new N95 mask and regular N95 respirators is the distribution of its materials. The entire mask is made of silicone, which is a very durable plastic. While this material doesn’t filtrate particles, the mask has two slots where you place filters made of the same regular N95 mask material.
So, almost the entirety of the mask is cleanable and reusable, while the filtrating discs must be discarded, just like N95 masks. Nonetheless, this significantly reduces the amount of material and supplies needed for each person, and can potentially solve N95 mask shortages in the United States and the world.
This new mask is called the iMASC, and stands for Injection Molded Autoclavable, Scalable, Conformable. The system can be sterilized in many different ways without decreasing the effectiveness of the mask. Researchers wrote that they were able to use steam and oven sterilization, as well as soaking them in rubbing alcohol and bleach, and they still worked the same.
Another great benefit of this new technology is the decrease of the environmental impact of non-reusable N95 masks. We would be using a lot less disposable material and much less waste. Besides, this will also be economically beneficial, since repurchasing of N95 masks can take a toll on a wallet, especially with all the price gouging that's been happening since the outbreak of the pandemic.
The mask has shown effectiveness and comfort in its first trials. A first test was done on a group of 24 health care workers that included physicians, nurses, and technicians. They wore the mask and did tests to check on breathability and fit.
There’s no set date as to when the mask will be available for purchase to the general public and health care workers. The estimated price could be $15 each for hospitals, but we are sure they won’t be in stock for long after they’re released. So, as soon as they’re available, make sure to buy one.
We finish this article reminding our readers to stay protected at all times. Social distancing is the only way to decrease the number of coronavirus cases, and we would like to recommend our readers to buy disposable face masks to protect your family, kids, and community, by protecting yourself first.