With up to 55.1 million cases and 1.33 million deaths, the surging demand for surgical masks have created a global shortage for masks and spiked anxiety among the public to stock up masks. Masks have since become a necessity for people when venturing outdoors as some shops may even bar a person’s entry if they do not don on masks. Here are some things to keep in mind to protect yourself and you’re loved ones!
Never reuse surgical masks
Given its shortage and short term usability, people have been trying to find ways and means to maximize its use. There have been rumors popping all over the internet that bacteria can be killed after steaming, boiling or poaching masks at high temperatures. However, none of these are true.
A study was conducted by the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital, Hong Kong Consumer Council, Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute, Hong Kong Science Park, and the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering of the City University of Hong Kong to find out the level of filtration of both surgical and DIY masks after the above attempts of sterilizing and cleaning.
Masks were sterilized using two approaches:
- The outer layer of surgical masks was sprayed with 75% alcohol- based hand rub.
- Surgical masks were washed with soap water at 60 degrees.
The results were analyzed using a scanning electron microscope.
Test 1- Observation of the water resistant layer:
- After the outer layer was sprayed with alcohol, the structure of water resistant layer was recorded to have been damaged.
- After a 60 degree wash, the water resistant layer was recorded to have shrunk.
Test 2- Observation of the filtration layer:
- The middle layer for filtration was observed to be damaged after sterilized with alcohol.
- After the soap wash, the middle layer was observed to have shrunk and was deformed.
Moral of the story, don’t reuse masks. Using a contaminated mask is as bad as not using one.
How to dispose surgical masks properly
As the pandemic surged, masks have been used and incorrectly disposed. In March 2020, groups of environmentalists in Hong Kong raised awareness about the increasing number of masks appearing on beaches. Not only are surgical masks a threat to marine life and wild life habitats, incorrect disposal of masks may lead to bacteria and or other viruses to multiply and spread.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends discarding masks into its designated bin directly after use. Masks or other protective gear used in the pandemic should not be thrown away in your general household rubbish as to prevent the virus from multiplying.
According to Iberdrola, the Brazilian Sanitary and Environmental Engineering Association has compiled the ideal way to dispose used masks and gloves. The items you want to dispose should be placed in two small plastic bags, one after another, then tied and thrown with your usual household waste. Take the initiative to write “risk of contamination”, should you have been in contact with an infected person.
Cloth masks can save the environment
The 3 ply design in surgical masks is comprised of 3 layers, the water resistant layer, middle layer, and inner layer to absorb moisture, and is crucial to protect one’s self and the people around them. However, surgical masks is made of plastic, which is harmful to the environment and can only be used once. Check out our article on how plastic can end up harming us. Hence, many people opt for cloth masks as a more sustainable option. But, just how effective are cloth masks? Do they protect us enough?
Cloth masks and surgical masks are both considered contaminated after use, but surgical masks are meant to be disposed off while cloth masks can be washed and reused. A study conducted among Vietnam health care workers in 2011 showed that if cloth masks were washed in hospital laundry, it can be as effective as surgical masks. The study also showed that health care workers who hand washed their own masks had up to double the risk of infection compared to masks washed in hospital laundry.
The World Health Organization recommends washing masks with laundry detergent in a washing machine at 60 degrees Celsius for the wash to be effective.
Some are worried that some fabrics, structure and design of certain cloth masks may not be enough to ward of pathogens, however, experts say that unless you’re a frontline worker, there isn’t much to worry about. The primary function of the cloth mask is to protect other people by containing respiratory droplets before they are expelled into the air.
A laboratory study used laser light scattering methodology to visualize respiratory droplets of different sizes. The research found that blocking the person’s mouth with a damp cloth blocked out nearly all of the “particles”. A real case scenario involved an infected man in Wuhan who flew to Toronto. Although he was tested positive for Covid, no other passengers contracted the illness as he wore a mask throughout the flight. A more recent case involved two hairstylist in Missouri who worked for a total of 140 clients while infected with Covid, however, due no clients tested positive for the illness as the hairstylists wore masks.
These studies are convincing cases to emphasize and encourage the use of masks. A recent study used publicly available data to observe the correlation between the growth rate of Covid-19 after mask mandates in 15 states and the district of Columbia between March and late May 2020. Researchers found a strong positive co relation between mask mandates and the decline in Covid cases. Researchers estimated that mask mandates may have prevented up to 450,000 cases of Covid. Although masks can never be 100% effective, in combination with other prevention methods such as social distancing and sanitizing regularly, we can keep each other safe and get through this together. As perfectly summarized in an article by MIT Medical: