//Masks for Dummies pt. IV

Masks for Dummies pt. IV

By I. smiley G. Calderón | smileygcalderon@gmail.com

Whew, it’s been one helluva summer!

And then California caught on fire! (Now, normally I would sarcastically quip, ‘What else could go wrong, 2020!’ But, with all of the horrible catastrophes simultaneously happening across the country at this time, I’ll respectfully refrain.)  Suddenly, saturated in smoke-filled skies packed with harmful microscopic particulate matter, countless Californians across the state learned just how really important their masks are for their health and safety – the raging fires made the nearby air dangerous for breathing without them.  And, if you recall my earlier columns about the bad air quality here in Fresno County, “Barely Breathing” and “(Still) Barely Breathing,” in December 2019 and January 2020, respectively, you’ll remember how we already have some of the highest PM 2.5 levels in the country.  This is due to a number of industrial and anthropogenic factors, yet one of the worst reasons is purely geographic.  The Central Valley traps bad air, preventing it from dissipating quicker, like in areas near the coast.  These recent fires have been especially horrible for our air quality.

But, if you’ve been wearing your mask in public (as any dummy should), you’d been breathing a whole lot easier and protecting your lungs from harmful microscopic airborne pollutant particles exacerbated by the fires.  Unfortunately, however, if your type of mask is a typical fabric kind of one, wearing it alone may not give you the actual protection you need.  That’s because the particulate matter that is especially dangerous is the kind that is 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter.  That’s like 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.  Particles this size would pass right through any fabric mask.  Basically, if you can see light pass through your mask when you hold it up against a light, then microscopic particles are buzzing right through it too.

That’s why the best kinds of masks to wear are the ones that are rated for blockage of particles that are .3 microns or bigger at a minimum efficiency level of 95%.  You’ve heard about these masks, no doubt.  They became well known at the beginning of the pandemic because they were the kinds of respirator masks in shortage for medical personnel.  They are the kind of masks that the government had recommended against because of the shortage: the infamous N95 masks.  Where the N designates that the mask is not resistant to oil particulates and the 95 means that it protects against 95% of the particulate matter that it’s rated for.

Wearing an N95 mask can protect you from inhaling both dangerous inorganic microscopic particles and dangerous infectious viral pathogens.

Yet, the government still does not recommend using N95 masks for the public in this pandemic.  The reason?  We’re still in a shortage and we need to ensure that medical first responders have a constant supply of N95s to protect themselves against the coronavirus.  It’s not because these masks don’t work.  Instead, it’s because they work too well.

Yet, we all need the best protection that we can get our hands on at this time.  Here in Fresno County, we have had about 25,000 total confirmed positive COVID-19 cases – that’s about double just from last month – with a total of 263 deaths and over 200 people currently in the hospital.  Only a month or so ago, we had 100 deaths.  This pandemic is far from over as the death toll steadily rises.  The need for effective and affordable face masks and respirators is more crucial now than ever.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a part of the CDC, is the agency responsible for rating respirators here in the United States.  In addition to N95 masks, they have also rated N97 and N100 masks that are even more efficient for certain applications.  The ratings are due to a combination of material, fit and design.  Since N95 masks are in high demand and short supply here in the U.S., thank goodness there are other similar masks rated the same in the marketplace for sale.  These are the KN95 respirators.  You already know what the “N95” part means.  The “K” part here signifies that the origin of the government agency responsible for its rating of testing is Chinese.  But, so what?  Both the N95 and KN95 masks are rated the same and provide the exact same protection.

And I saw these KN95 masks on sale for only $1.99/ea at the local Smart and Final.  

Listen, bottom line is: if you want to have the best protection on your face, you should really look into buying some KN95 masks.

Well, what about the cloth masks we’ve been talking about these past six months?  If they can’t protect us against the smoke that we can see, how in the hell are they keeping us safe from what we can’t see – like the invisible coronavirus?  The answer is in the fact that the coronavirus is not simply floating around out in the air as separate, discrete rogue virions – no.  Instead, these viruses are attached to other, bigger particles and aerosols, ones that can normally be captured and filtered by a multilayered cloth mask.  This is how cloth masks are effective against the coronavirus.  And, like I wrote last time, what’s important here is the multiple layers.  These layers should prevent virus-laden aerosols and saliva from leaving your face while at the same time protect you from virus-laden aerosols and saliva coming from the environment.

Viruses are incredibly small.  The size of the coronavirus is about .10 microns – much smaller than even the pernicious PM 2.5 pollutant particles (like the ones produced by fires) which are about 2.5 microns in diameter.  So, if you were saturated in a room full of sick coronavirus patients spewing virus by their coughing and talking, like in a hospital setting, you’d definitely want to be wearing an N95 or KN95 mask.  But, chances are, while you go about your daily business around town, you’re not sitting in clouds of coronavirus.  Wearing a cloth mask makes sense for normal, everyday use.  Yet, if you have access to a respirator like the N95 or KN95s, why not wear it instead, right?  If, by chance, you walk into an area where an infected person has coughed up a storm right before you enter, a KN95 mask would protect you more from infection than your porous cloth mask would.

What I like to do is wear a cloth mask over my KN-95 mask.  I can easily spray down the cloth mask with Lysol or wash it as it is serves as my first line of defense, my barrier protection from the bigger harmful environmental particles and aerosols.  And, my inner KN-95 mask protects me from the even smaller particles, including dangerous particulate matter and virions, that may pass through my cloth mask.

But, if all you have is a cloth mask, that’s better than nothing – wear it!  Just remember to fully cover your mouth and your nose.  Because, like I’ve said before, wearing a mask incorrectly is like wearing no mask at all.  This is true for N95 and KN95 respirator masks too.  If your mask is not pressed up against your face so that there are no air gaps and if it isn’t fully covering your mouth and nose, it isn’t giving you the level of protection that you think you’re getting.

And in these uncertain, critical times, when the world around us is burning down in every sense of the word and it’s not safe to breathe in the air around us, every dummy needs some sort of certainty in his life – why not start with what’s hanging from your face first?

That’s right, until next time – wear your mask and wear it right.