By Mary Gillis
Some have heralded masks as the gold standard of protective gear against COVID-19. However, they may be causing more problems than expected.
Results from a study published in the Journal of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety in May have indicated that masks pose significant risks to wearers due to toxins emitted by the tight-fitting face coverings.
Researchers from South Korea measured the number and concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from several different masks, including cotton masks and KF94 masks—a popular type of disposable mask similar to the N95 mask.
Four types of VOCs were detected in KF94 masks at 22.9–147 times higher concentrations compared to other masks comprised of fabrics like cotton. The total number of VOC particles was 14 times that in cotton masks. In some KF94 masks, numbers reached a threshold high enough to pose a serious risk to human health.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), VOCs are manmade chemicals that can evaporate at room temperature and are often “used and produced in the manufacture of paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants.”
Inhaling them may cause the following:
- Eyes, nose, and throat irritation.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Damage to the central nervous system and other organs.
- Cancer (some cases in animals, and suspected or known cases in humans).
VOC Concentrations Worse at Certain Times and Temperatures
Researchers found that VOC concentrations fluctuated depending on environmental temperature and when the KF94s were removed from their packaging. When the temperature of the KF94 masks was raised to 104 F (40 C), concentrations increased by 119 to 299 percent. Levels decreased by 80 percent 30 minutes after removing the masks from the packaging.
Risks can be mitigated to reduce harm, the study authors noted.
“It is clear that particular attention must be paid to the VOCs associated with the use of KF94 masks [and their] effects on human health,” they wrote.
“Based on our findings, we suggest that prior to wearing a KF94 mask, each product should be opened and not worn for at least 30 min, thereby reducing total VOC concentrations to levels that will not impair human health,” the authors concluded.
Other Toxins and Mask-Induced Exhaustion Syndrome
One 2022 study also highlighted toxic chemicals found in several masks and a long list of the possible consequences of covering up.
Phthalates are widely used chemicals that disrupt human endocrine systems and impact human health. While phthalates are said to make masks more versatile and flexible, there’s a high price to pay when choosing comfort over safety.
Instead of being chemically bonded to the material, phthalates are used as an additive that can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. Exposure is detrimental to reproductive and neurological development.
Researchers in China found harmful phthalates in 56 mask samples collected from several countries. According to results from the study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, nearly 90 percent of the samples contained potential carcinogens, suggesting any benefits of masking may be outweighed by the risks unless types and levels of chemicals are managed to be within safe limits.
A comprehensive review published in Front Public Health in April found significant negative impacts of both surgical and N95 masks. Adverse effects correlated with mask-wearing included:
- Decreased oxygen saturation.
- Decreased minute ventilation.
- Increased carbon dioxide in the blood.
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature.
- Higher levels of discomfort.
- Shortness of breath.
- Skin irritation.
“Masks interfered with O2-uptake and CO2-release and compromised respiratory compensation,” the review authors wrote. “Outcomes independently validate mask-induced exhaustion-syndrome (MIES) and down-stream physio-metabolic dysfunctions. MIES can have long-term clinical consequences, especially for vulnerable groups. So far, several mask related symptoms may have been misinterpreted as long COVID-19 symptoms. In any case, the possible MIES contrasts with the WHO definition of health.”
The study was retracted a month later. The reason given for the retraction was that “the article does not meet the standards of editorial and scientific soundness for Frontiers in Public Health.”
The Return of Mask Mandates?
The decision to mask up is becoming a hot-button issue across the United States as the nation sees an uptick in cases and bears the arrival of a new COVID variant, EG.5. The question of whether to enforce masking is once again permeating the fabric of society as mandates creep back in.
Morris Brown College has reinstated its mask mandate as a two-week precautionary measure due to an increasing number of cases reported in the Atlanta region. According to the school’s official Instagram account, students and faculty must all mask up. Faculty can unmask if they are alone in their office.
Several hospital systems have reinstated mask mandates. UMass Memorial Hospital confirmed in a statement last week that it would reimpose masking for staff. Patients and visitors are exempt from the mandate, it stated.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends masks in indoor public transportation settings. The agency suggests people make decisions based on the level of COVID hospital admissions in their county. The CDC also recommends older adults and the immunocompromised wear masks or anyone more likely to get severely sick from COVID-19.