A face mask or facepiece such as a surgical mask or a respirator is worn for protection against various airborne particulates such as fumes, fluids or droplets, viruses, and bacteria as well. Face masks and respirators are even being used by people who are involved in professions such as construction and healthcare. But at the start of the year 2020, the world was introduced to a virulent disease by the name of “coronavirus” that slightly altered the relationship between masks and people. Masks and respirators such as the N95 became essential equipment for all as COVID-19 started spreading to all countries and gained the status of a pandemic.
As the virus went on to affect more and more people each day, the public and officials finally started to realize the importance of covering one’s mouth and nostrils with the help of a mask. But as this realization dawned on people, everyone started to go berserk over it as a result of which this commodity became extremely short. Other than that, the disposable nature of masks also called for rapid supply which was rather difficult for manufacturers as well as required them to produce masks and respirators in a very short period.
As we saw this whole scenario unfold during the initial days of the virus, we also got to witness the reluctance of many individuals against the usage of masks. They argued that a mask is futile when worn to seek protection against the COVID-19—furthermore, a mask does nothing other than providing its user with a false satisfaction of safety. This could be even more harmful as it could make the person donning a mask or a respirator, reckless in regards to following the social distancing and other precautionary measures.
So while the first wave was thriving and the likelihood of cases subsiding didn’t appear to be possible by a long short--the public also discovered the non-appealing news about the incompetence of valved masks. In July, the Food and Drug Administration agency FDA came out with news of facemasks having valves being unsuitable to be worn during the pandemic. This department of health and human services agency further warned the public about using such masks for protection against coronavirus as wearing these masks would cause the user more harm than good.
The reasons behind the incompetence of valved N95 masks
A respiratory valve or simply a valve that is a small opening on the side or sometimes on the Centre of the respirator and is about the size of a small disc. The purpose of this little opening is to make the breathing process easier for the user as valves help prevent humidity inside the mask while also providing a way out for the air. According to the FDA, face masks that have valves--such as a valved N95 are not capable of protecting the coronavirus.
This statement issued by the FDA was rather shocking for the majority of people because the most famous valved mask ‘the N95’ is approved by the FDA and recommended by NIOSH. The N95 is also the top choice for healthcare workers as this particular respirator can filter out 95% airborne particulates up-to-the size of 0.3 microns, which is the size of the coronavirus as well. The N95 also provides a tight seal fitting that stops all particles from entering through the nose or mouth of the user.
So why does the FDA have an issue with something that is a praise-worthy function to be included in a respirator such as the N95 and makes the tedious task of wearing a respirator easier for human beings? It’s pretty simple. A valve technically forces air out of a respirator, to elaborate further, the air that is exhaled by the user is forced to leave the mask and travel outwards. In addition, this air that is forced out by the valve travels much farther than a normal person’s breath does—so if any symptomatic person wore an N95 that has a valve, his respirator could help spread the virus.
Another drawback of wearing a valved N95 is that these masks are one-way filters only. The air that enters the mask and is inhaled by the user is filtered, however, the air that is exhaled by the user and travels outside the mask and will inevitably be inhaled by some other person is not filtered. This one-way filter is the primary problem with valved masks that FDA has brought to light. Furthermore, a valved mask was not specifically designed to be worn for protection against a disease such as COVID-19, and because of that, it does not have the functions that make it an appropriate choice during the pandemic. Valved N95 respirators are designed for construction workers and according to the FDA, that’s the only place they should be used till the pandemic is over.
FDA’s declaration of the fact that valved masks are unsuitable at present confused many people because before the news had emerged, N95s with valves were being widely used by everyone. A valved N95 is not as harmful to the user as it is for other people, so a person who has this specific type of mask may continue using it. However, if the person wearing this specific mask is symptomatic or is COVID-19 positive but is unaware than his exhaled breath that due to the valves will travel far and wide, could have dire consequences.