The disposable face masks known as the N95 masks are respirators used in many work settings where respiratory hazards are present. These hazards are particles that can be detrimental to the worker’s health if they’re inhaled during prolonged periods. The name of N95 respirators comes from the classification established by NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
This institution is a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and it was created to make research and science-based recommendations to the workplaces across the country to prevent work-related diseases or injuries. NIOSH has the job to test and make sure each respirator manufactured meets the criteria for the respirator type it’s intended to be.
This is important because many workplaces contain respiratory hazards, like mining and construction sites, and the use of respirators is required. These are masks or mask-like devices that contain filters that trap these hazardous particles, preventing them from reaching the wearer’s airways when they inhale. This prevents respiratory diseases like lung cancer.
NIOSH classifies respirators using two characteristics:
- Resistance to oil: indicated with a letter, and it’s directly proportional to the efficacy the respirator has to filter out particles that contain oil. The letter can be N, R, or P, meaning not resistant, resistant, or oil-proof, respectively.
- Filtration rate: indicated with a number, which represents the minimum particulate filtration efficacy. This is a percentage that tells you how many airborne particles from the air the respirator can filter out. The percentages can be either 95, 99, or 100%.
In the case of N95 respirators, they don’t filter out particles that contain oil and can filter 95% of them. This makes them effective for protection against dust, smoke, and viruses like the flu or the new coronavirus, which are non-oil based airborne particles.
N95 masks have filters with lots of small holes in them, which are small enough to trap airborne particles, that is, a particle with a diameter of 0.3 micrometers. However, to trap these particles the circumference of these holes would have to be smaller than 0.3 micrometers, but this would make it very hard for the wearer to breathe with the mask on. Manufacturers increase the circumference of these holes without affecting the filtration rate by adding electrostatic charges to the filter media, which attracts particles with the opposite charge. This way, they can filter out both large and small particles.
N95 masks are currently the preferred face mask of choice for protection in the healthcare field during the coronavirus pandemic. Considered to be the best disposable face masks when it comes to virus protection, they offer higher antiviral properties than those found in surgical masks, medical masks, or reusable fabric homemade masks. Inside the United States, some of the most popular models are the 3M 8511 and the 3M 8210, NIOSH-approved 3m N95 masks.
A common misconception about N95 masks is that they’re the same as KN95 masks, but this isn’t true. KN95 masks are manufactured under the Chinese filtration standard, which is slightly different from the NIOSH standard. But, these differences are so small, they’re generally considered to be interchangeable, and KN95 masks can be used as substitutes for N95 masks when these aren’t available. Similarly, under the European standard, FFP2 respirators are considered to be the equivalent of N95 masks.
Why is this circumference important?
Viruses like the SARS-CoV-2 are considered to be airborne particles. The circumference of the filter holes in N95 masks is important because it means they can be effective for protection against this new coronavirus, which can be lethal to certain groups of people.
COVID-19, the name given to this new disease, is an infectious respiratory illness that is caused by this new virus, discovered just in December of last year. Other coronaviruses have been known to cause respiratory diseases in humans, which are very mild and similar to the flu. But, this new virus seems to step out of the pattern shown by these viruses.
Now we know that most cases are either mild or asymptomatic and that the most common symptoms include fever, dry cough, sore throat, and sometimes it can be accompanied by pain in the chest or the muscles, and the loss of taste and smell. But, there’s a percentage of considerable size among the cases in which the disease is more severe, leading to serious complications or even death.
The most vulnerable people include immunocompromised patients, older people, and those with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, pre-existing lung diseases, or any form of organ failure. In them, the virus can severely damage the lungs, leading to the need for mechanical ventilation, or it can also affect other organs, causing thrombosis and multi-organ failure.
Even though the severe cases aren’t the majority, they become more important when a lot of people in a population is infected. Healthcare centers aren’t prepared for this many sick people, and they get overwhelmed and collapse. This is why the main focus, while the vaccine is still in development, is to stop the spread of the virus so it can’t reach the most vulnerable parts of the community.
Anyone who uses face-coverings is protecting not only themselves but also those vulnerable people inside their communities, as well as the healthcare workers on the frontline of the pandemic. N95 masks used to be found for sale online easily, and people could buy them in bulk and wholesale. Now, medical professionals struggle to find supplies, including N95 masks, gloves, and face shields. Let’s help them out and keep ourselves safe.