Earlier this month, India surpassed Russia to become the third country in the world to be worst affected by the novel coronavirus. The total number of infections have mounted to 11,55,191 and we’ve lost more than 28,000 people to the disease since the first case was reported in the country in January. We’ve been under lockdown – one of the harshest in the world – for close to four months. You’d think by now, we’d have got some basics right like which mask is the safest. But as we “unlock” with abandon, the government has delivered a shocker: The N-95 masks with valved respirators, which people have been using for months now, are not as safe as we think. They do not prevent the virus from spreading and are “detrimental” to measures adopted for its containment.
The DGHS has instead emphasised on the use of homemade protective cover for the face and mouth. In April, the government had issued an advisory on the use of homemade masks made of cotton cloth, which need to be washed every day. The latest advisory of course has left many confused. If health workers are wearing N-95 respirators why can’t the public? However, counterfeit N-95 masks are flooding the market due to the huge demand. Here’s the lowdown on N-95 masks.
What is N-95 mask
N-95 mask, a personal protective equipment, protects the wearer from airborne particles, including small particle aerosols and large droplets (only non-oil aerosols) from contaminating the face. They are meant for healthcare and construction workers to keep out dust and other particles.
N-95 and KN95
N-95 are the US standards for respirator masks while KN95 are the Chinese standards for masks. Both are almost the same with the capability to capture 95% of tiny particles or 0.3-micron particles. There are two types in N-95 masks — NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health)-approved ones and surgical N-95 respirators. Surgical N-95 respirators are approved by both NIOSH as a respirator and by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) as a surgical mask.
Face Filtering Piece
These are largely used in Europe and are equivalent to N-95. There are three categories viz, FFPI, FFP2 and FFP3. EN 149:2001+A1:2009 represents the current standards by the European Committee for Standardization. FFP1 is used to keep dust and similar substances at bay. It can’t keep the coronavirus away. FFP2, which provides extra protection from chemically-laced air particles and dust, reportedly doesn’t provide full protection from the coronavirus. However, FFP3 is the most effective mask.
What the govt says
An N-95 mask with a front valve can protect the wearer but still, the valve allows droplets to release from the mask, putting others at risk. The valves are said to offer no filtration at all. According to experts, homemade washable protective cover for face and mouth can protect a person from getting infected by Covid-19. Therefore, unless you’re a healthcare worker and the only concern is what you’re inhaling, don’t use a mask with a valve.
Identifying fake masks
National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved masks have an approval label on or within the packaging of the mask. NIOSH-approved Filtering Facepiece Respirators will always have one the following designations: N95, N99, N100, R95, R99, R100, P95, P99, P100.
But there is a difference. An N-95 respirator has a two-way valve which filters particles while inhaling and exhaling. These are mostly used by medical professionals given their exposure to the virus. The one-way valve, which is largely sold in the India market, does not filter aerosols coming out of your mouth. This puts those around you at risk. So, what the government is now saying is ditch the N-95 Mask with a single valve. And there are more chances that your handkerchief or dupatta would work better. Point taken. We have only one question: Why did it wait for four months to draft that advisory?
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