By Jeff Moravec
It’s easy to misunderstand viral respiratory diseases, whether the current pandemic outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) or past events such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002−2003. When they fade from the news, people often assume it’s because a cure was found. In fact, what happens is that human-to-human disease transmission is merely contained—in large part because of the use of nonwoven fabrics in the production of face masks and respirators.
At the same time, the use of such masks and respirators is widely misunderstood, especially by members of the public who want to protect themselves from exposure.
“There’s a lot of confusion in general about what personal protection products can and can’t do,” says Dave Nelson, director of industry engagement for the Nonwovens Institute in Raleigh, N.C., and a 45-year veteran of the nonwovens industry.
In early 2020, manufacturers such as 3M, Honeywell and others experienced a huge surge in demand for masks approved as N95, a protection level designated as appropriate for use against viral respiratory diseases by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nonrated masks do not provide the same level of filtration as a NIOSH-approved respirator, as they are neither tight-fitting nor capable of providing sufficient filtration over a wide range of particle sizes, experts say. In addition, surgical masks (except those that have an N95 NIOSH rating) are designed to contain droplets and aerosols coughed or expelled from the wearer, not to protect the wearer from airborne aerosols.
“The difference between a ‘face mask’ and a respirator is significant,” says Chris Plotz, director of education and technical affairs for INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry in Cary, N.C., with some of the confusion coming from the fact that respirators are often referred to as face masks, blurring the difference.
“A respirator is designed to fit your face uniformly,” he says. “It also has a much larger surface area of filtration media so you can wear it for longer periods of time.”
NIOSH-approved filtering facepiece respirators will always have two straps and the word NIOSH on the front of the respirator.
“OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] mandates that if workers (such as in health care) have to use personal protective equipment, and specifically respirators, they have to be trained on why they have to use one, how it works and what the limitations are,” says Eric Esswein, CEO of Emeritus Safety and Health LLC, Conifer, Colo.
Workers who are required to wear respirators for work must also be fit-tested to ensure that when they put on the respirator, it provides the protection it is designed for, he adds.
“Workers are much more likely to have a greater understanding of all this because of the training, but that’s not true for the general public,” Esswein says. “If the general public is concerned about exposure—whether it’s just noninfectious dust or traveling somewhere in the time of an infectious disease outbreak that may be transmitted through the air—they’re likely not going to know how to correctly select and use any type of actual respiratory protection. If they are wearing a surgical mask (or what’s being referred to as “social masks”), they may not understand these do not protect wearers from exposure to infectious aerosols. They limit infectious aerosols expelled when they cough or sneeze, but neither is respiratory protection for the wearer.”
Before the global spread of COVID-19, the general public may have looked at a surgical mask—one that loops over the ears and covers the mouth and in some cases the nose—and believed that it provided the same level of protection as a respirator. Media coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak offered some education, but that bit of knowledge led to other problems: the hoarding of N95 respirators, price gouging and counterfeit products. In late February, the U.S. surgeon general urged the public to stop buying masks so that health-care workers would have an available supply, and online retailers such as Amazon cracked down on sellers violating fair pricing policies. By March, the CDC loosened recommendations related to specialized masks because of the shortage, declaring that until the supply of N95 respirators was restored, looser fitting surgical masks “are an acceptable alternative.” In early April, the CDC revised its recommendations regarding masks worn by the general public during the COVID-19 outbreak, calling for people to wear cloth masks fashioned from household products while reserving respirators and surgical masks for medical personnel.
Lack of education causes people to wear the wrong kind of protection, but availability of approved masks plays a role. In many cases, people just want to do something to feel protected.
“They’re really just afraid of breathing in a virus that’s going to cause problems for them,” says Nelson. “It’s fear. But in all my training, and according to the technical knowledge, unless you’re wearing the appropriate product, and it is fit to your face, and you’re wearing it the appropriate way for the appropriate length of time, it may not give you the protection you want or need.
“A lot of people are making a lot of money selling things that are not very effective,” he adds.
Esswein says that great strides were made in the development of garments to protect workers from contamination since the anthrax attacks in 2001, further spurred by the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Technology advancements in the manufacture of masks and respirators “have been evolving steadily,” according to Nelson.
Most protection devices are made through a melt-blowing fabrication process, often a composite with spun-bonded materials, Plotz explains. He says a “new breed” of nonwoven materials are much finer on the nano scale than in the past. “It allows for improvements in filtration efficiency,” he says. “It’s easier to breathe through and you don’t have to use a whole lot of it to get significant gains.” In addition, many of the new generation of filtering facepiece respirators have electrostatic properties built into the nonwoven material, making them more efficient.
Sustainability of single-use products is a topic of conversation in the nonwovens industry, including the manufacture of face masks and respirators. But outbreaks such as COVID-19 tend to put those discussions on the back burner. “Before coronavirus, certainly there was great interest in sustainability,” Nelson says. “We were starting to see some serious work about using materials that are more eco-friendly. At some point, we will get back to more of a push toward that, as sustainability continues to be a major theme for the nonwovens industry.”
Whenever an outbreak like coronavirus occurs, the central question is whether manufacturers can ramp up production to meet staggering demand. “There are plenty of materials available that can sort of work for what I call a ‘nuisance mask,’ something that is not regulated, that doesn’t meet any kind of environmental standard,” says Nelson. “It’s harder with a regulated mask, one that meets some kind of quality threshold, especially when you need millions of them. It’s really important that the industry continues to work with reputable companies that adhere to strict quality requirements.”
Information about NIOSH-approved N95 respirators can be found at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/respirators.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.