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Face masks: how we help prevent inhalation of volatile organic compounds

28 September 2023
Article by Teresa Mata, researcher in the area of environment and sustainability, and Gabriela Ventura, researcher in the area of air quality.

Masks are extremely important in hospital context for healthcare professionals, as they help prevent the spread of infectious diseases between patients and between patients and healthcare professionals. Doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians are frequently exposed to infectious and contagious agents, and masks can help prevent the transmission of these agents. The general population also massively used face masks, one of the main preventive measures recognized by the World Health Organization and implemented to mitigate the epidemic impact of COVID-19.

As the mask is an accessory that can be used for several hours a day, through which the air we breathe passes and is in contact with the skin of the face, it must not cause discomfort to the user and must not contain toxic, irritating or sensitizing chemical compounds. However, few studies have been carried out to characterize the existence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the materials of commercially available face masks.

This information is important both for manufacturers - who can improve the quality and safety of their products and comply with regulations - and for users - who can reduce their exposure and avoid possible adverse health effects. Therefore, INEGI's Indoor Air Quality Laboratory, a laboratory with extensive experience in the area of detailed characterization of VOCs, has the skills to analyze the emission of harmful compounds in the manufacturing materials of face masks, and evaluate the user's exposure to their inhalation, as well as determining the presence of specific VOCs that cause skin sensitization through dermal contact.

Studies show there is room to improve safety

There are some studies on the topic. Silva et al. [1] analyzed the presence of VOCs in three types of masks: surgical, FFP2 and reusable. All of them were CE marked and certified for filtration efficiency and breathability. In this study, two different experimental methods were used to sample VOCs, adapted from existing methods, one to simulate inhalation exposure and the other to simulate dermal exposure. Target compounds were defined for each assessment: Total VOCs for inhalation exposure and sensitizing VOCs for skin category 1 and subcategories 1A and 1B for dermal exposure.

The results showed that the calculated dose of total VOCs resulting from inhalation exposure is very varied, with values ranging between 0 and 2374 µg/day. Regarding skin exposure, although it is not possible to generalize, the reusable masks analyzed consistently presented higher values of skin sensitizing compounds than the disposable masks. Also, Jin et al. [2] identified and quantified VOCs, polycyclic aromatics, and phthalate esters in surgical masks, having detected a broad spectrum of these compounds in the masks analyzed.

Furthermore, some of the synthetic dyes and plastic additives, which contain VOCs and are used in the manufacture of face masks, are toxic and persistent in the environment, causing short- and long-term negative impacts on human health, fauna and flora [3]–[7].

Despite this, its impact on human health is never, or rarely, considered when choosing a face mask, since the consumer does not have this information available to make a choice, nor are there yet rules or regulations that impose restrictions on the use of chemical compounds. in face masks. The most common hazard from inhaling dye particles is respiratory problems, symptoms of which include itching, watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, wheezing and asthma symptoms [6]. Therefore, in addition to their ability to protect against viruses, it is of great importance that face masks are also tested for the emission of harmful substances, to ensure that they do not impact the user in terms of respiratory and skin health.

It is also necessary to implement standards and regulations in the future regarding chemical compounds present in face mask materials.

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