Covid-19 masks ‘cause plastic fibre inhalation – but we should still use them’

Covid-19 masks ‘cause plastic fibre inhalation – but we should still use them’

Wearing a face mask has become a way of life during the coronavirus pandemic, but it can also cause us to inhale harmful plastic fibres, according to a new study by Chinese scientists.

The researchers tested a wide range of mask products and found that nearly all would increase the daily intake of microplastic fibres during wear because of their relatively fragile structure.

The fibres could cause some health problems, but this possibility was dwarfed by their benefits during the pandemic and should not prompt people to stop wearing them, according to the researchers.

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“It is a minor problem compared with protecting humans from Covid-19,” said the team from the Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan in a peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials on Wednesday.

Scientists first discovered microplastics in the lung tissue of some patients who died of lung cancer in the 1990s, and many other studies have since highlighted the potential damage to health caused by such materials.

Plastic degrades slowly, so once in the lungs it tends to stay there and build up in volume. Some studies have found that the immune system can attack these foreign objects, causing prolonged inflammation that can lead to diseases such as cancer.

Face masks help prevent airborne transmission of the coronavirus using a combination of fabrics. The commonly used surgical masks, for instance, have three layers of melt-blown textiles made of polypropylene.

Some people also use home-made cotton masks or fashion masks made of organic polymer, which offer less protection but greater comfort for everyday use.

The Institute of Hydrobiology researchers in Wuhan counted the plastic fibres shed by masks over a month, using a laboratory device that simulated human breathing. They found that masks containing activated carbon produced the highest number of fibres, at nearly 4,000.

Those were followed by surgical masks, cotton masks, fashion masks and N95 masks, the brands of which were not specified in the study. Some of the fibres were several millimetres long, considerably larger than typical particles floating in the air.

There were already plenty of microplastics in human living environments. About a third of the floating particles in the atmosphere are plastic, according to some studies. They could come from almost anywhere, from the clothes people wear to farms using plastic membrane.

Masks can filter air pollutants to varying extents, but with the exception of N95s, all produce more microplastic fibres than they filter, according to the new Chinese study.

The N95 respirator studied released only about half of the quantity of microplastics of a surgical mask. N95s are designed to filter at least 95 per cent of airborne particles. Intended mainly for medical or industrial use, they are made to higher standards with a stronger structure.

But wearing an N95 for a long time could cause fatigue because of oxygen shortage, it has been warned, and in many countries these masks were reserved for use by frontline health workers.

The institute’s study also found that reused masks produced more loosened fibres. The worst structural damage was observed after applying alcohol.

Cleaning masks by exposing them to ultraviolet light caused the smallest amount of loosening, while washing a mask gently without soap could cause some damage but not much, the researchers found.

The exact health side-effects caused by broken-off fibres is unclear, so although people should be informed of the inhalation risk they should continue to wear masks, the researchers said.

Used masks have also added to litter and recent studies have warned of their contribution to water pollution, potentially adding to consumption of harmful plastics by humans and animals.

One Response

  1. As a Surgical Technician, responsible for sterile technique in the OR pre, inter and post operation…:

    Masks are only good for splatter – which has ALWAYS BEEN THE CASE. Common masks can not stop virus from going right through the same as no mask would go through.

    Masks are only useful in a very few situations like in a healthcare setting or in mass transit AND THEN some one has to cough up and send out a droplet.

    If one is going to snag a corona out of the air it must be a big enough amount to SUSTAIN AN INFECTION IN A SUSCEPTIBLE INDIVIDUAL.

    We breath viruses in and out ALL DAY. EXHALING IS AS IMPORTANT AS INHALING.

    A mask improperly used can become a very efficient COLLECTOR of pathogens.

    They must not be touched, as in ‘adjusted’, or used for long in one of the VERY FEW situations when they are useful and then they must be disposed of, sooner than later, in these very few situations properly – as in incinerated or disinfected – and THEN hands are washed before another mask is obtained.

    “Wicking” can cause anything wet to flow INSTANTLY to the inside of a mask. Elastic band methods of holding on a mask are the very best for creating a need to ‘adjust’ the mask, something you would NEVER WANT TO DO while using the mask within one of the VERY FEW situations that they might be useful.

    The two tie, or “surgical mask”, prevents the mask from moving up or down. Only surgical technicians like myself are comfortable with their PPE around Corona or any other infectious bug, AND WHY??? …Because we know it is almost %100 about the hands not touching the face until the hands are sanitized.

    Needless to say the infected or might be infected should stay home. This would reduce to almost zero ALL the Corona (at least) in the air.

    Droplets are encountered only in some very few circumstances so masks are needed in only a very few circumstances. I would wear them in a train or plane or bus and in a crowded mall or grocery store and of course in any health care facility of any kind or in surgery where there is splatter from many sources. We can be terrified if you want to but I do not see the need for mask hysteria.

    Either we let Senators and Judges and Congressmen and Presidents and Vice-Presidents and First Ladies and Governors and Mayors and Journalists and Property Owners practice Medicine without a License without a STANDARD OF CARE or we only let Doctor’s of Medicine with a License and are answerable to a Standard of CARE practice Medicine – but not both. Within the word Standard we see the word Stand. Are there no more standards of care? Standards of Conduct for anything?

    What about abandoned severe pain patients abandoned for the idea that the street, illicit fentanyl and other drug overdoses have a sharing with legitimate Doctor supervised severe pain control?

    See everything at Youtube by Dr. Thomas Kline, PhD

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