The U.S. SARS-Cov-2 infection rate climbed to 18 times that of the European Union (EU) per capita by the end of June. At the same time, the EU’s curve has remained flat since the end of May. The EU’s success in the fight against Covid-19 is due in part to minimum breathability and filtration requirements for public face masks. The EU set the criteria along with testing methods to ensure conformance. At this time, the United States has not issued guidelines on safe and effective materials for consumer facemasks.
The EU’s attitude toward wearing face masks in public follows a “collective-protection strategy.” Residents cover their mouths and noses as a courtesy based on cooperation, which is viewed as a show of solidarity.
Breathability in public face masks has become a contentious topic in the United States. Videos of concerned citizens scolding lawmakers over facemasks that potentially impair breathing have been circulating. And a budding “anti-mask” movement appears to be afoot. The U.S. public is still trying to figure out what safe and breathable materials to use in home-made or store-bought masks from videos and unregulated manufacturers.
By contrast, community face masks have been designated a distinct category separate from personal protection equipment (PPE), and go through testing before market. Balancing breathability with filtration criteria is key to the strategy. “A community face covering that hinders the user's ability to breathe when first put on is deemed unsuitable,” explains the guide.
Breathability is determined via tests that gauge “breathing resistance” and “air permeability”, with specific health measures set for both. The criteria for effective filtration is set at 70-to-90 percent of droplet particles. "The producer [of consumer face masks] shall perform verification and validation tests within its facility or in collaboration with a test laboratory that has the appropriate means of testing before placing any community face covering on the market," explains the guide.
The Industrial Technical Center for Textiles and Clothing in France helped coordinate companies in choosing and testing materials that meet the criteria. By early June, more than 100 French manufacturers applied to pass conformance requirements allowing them to use the quality label fashioned for conforming public face mask products produced in France.
The EU’s requirements that ensure public face masks meet set breathability and filtration criteria were published via open access in June. The reference guide addressing quality consumer face masks intended for the general public—whether homemade or mass-produced—can be downloaded at:
Notable highlights of the consumer mask standardization initiative include:
● Three respiratory-resistance and air-permeability tests to help ensure wearers can breathe.
● Consideration for consumer masks to be recyclable or compostable to ensure sustainability.
● Use of fabrics that allow air to pass through when breathing, while sealed around the perimeter.
● Do not use vacuum cleaner bags, building-construction materials, diapers, or similar items.
● Do not use textiles treated with possibly harmful chemicals.
● Do not use irritating fabrics that would make community face masks difficult to wear.
● Do not use fabrics that are stiff and create gaps around the perimeter.
● Do not use highly permeable, loosely constructed fabrics.
● Beards can reduce filtration efficiency to below the limits set out in the reference guide.
“The user should be aware that it can take time to become comfortable with the community face covering,” explains the reference guide. ###
Rosalie Marion Bliss, MA, writes about research-based news focused on public face mask quality (non-PPE-category) and standards free during the pandemic. Bliss formerly was science writer and public affairs specialist for USDA’s chief scientific research agency.