Dozens of notable studies over the past year have shown that face masks, combined with other preventive measures like frequent hand-washing and social distancing, can limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
With this in mind, after conducting your extensive research on all of the different types of masks on the market, what you’ll likely eventually conclude is that N95 masks are the gold standard for both medical professionals and the general public.
However, ever since the start of the pandemic roughly eleven months ago, these masks often have been in short supply, which prompted individuals to search for alternatives. And one of the more popular non-N95 protective gear has been the KN95 masks.
On the surface, these two masks do share many similarities. N95 masks are considered the standard here in the United States, while the KN95 is China’s equivalent. Both masks are made from multiple layers of synthetic material (typically a polypropylene plastic polymer) and are designed to be worn over the mouth and nose. And both masks must be able to filter out and capture 95 percent (the figure seen in the mask names) of 0.3-micron particles in the air.
There, however, have been concerns raised in recent months about the actual effectiveness of the KN95 masks.
One particular study released in September by ECRI, a nonprofit organization that advises hospitals, government organizations, and other healthcare stakeholders on product safety, discovered that up to 70 percent of KN95 masks imported directly from China didn’t meet the standards the United States had for N95 masks.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is in charge of regulating masks in the United States.
According to ECRI, the testing of nearly two hundred masks was conducted by the organization’s quality assurance researchers at an independent medical device laboratory.
“Because of the dire situation, U.S. hospitals bought hundreds of thousands of masks produced in China over the past six months and we’re finding that many aren’t safe and effective against the spread of COVID-19,” Dr. Marcus Schabacker, ECRI’s president and chief executive officer, said in a news release.
“Using masks that don’t meet U.S. standards puts patients and frontline healthcare workers at risk of infection. As ECRI research shows, we strongly recommend that healthcare providers going forward do more due diligence before purchasing masks that aren’t made or certified in America, and we’re here to help them.”
Although the majority of imported KN95 masks weren’t found to meet NIOSH standards, they can still be useful in protecting oneself from contracting or spreading the virus.
“KN95 masks that don’t meet U.S. regulatory standards still generally provide more respiratory protection than surgical or cloth masks and can be used in certain clinical settings,” Michael Argentieri, vice president for technology and safety at ECRI, said in a statement.
ECRI researchers added that KN95 masks can be used in lieu of surgical or procedure masks for activities that involve limited contact with bodily fluids, as these masks are not intended for fluid repellency.
The organization already has warned U.S. healthcare providers to use KN95s or other non-NIOSH-certified masks only as a last resort when treating known or suspected coronavirus-positive patients.
“Hospitals and staff who treat suspected COVID-19 patients should be aware that imported masks may not meet current U.S. regulatory standards despite marketing that says otherwise,” Argentieri said.
While not providing 95 percent protection, the researchers also asserted many non-certified masks that come with head and neck straps, as opposed to masks with only ear loops, better conform to and seal against the wearer’s face, helping to ensure that the air being breathed is filtered.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.