Masked Bandits

 Masked Bandits

By Peter Galvin, MD

As we enter the fall season, we are seeing an expected slight uptick in Covid-19 cases. Make no mistake, the pandemic is over. But there are rumblings from school districts, colleges, and businesses to reinstate mask mandates. Some already have. As Dr. Fauci and others famously said, “follow the science.” Yet, overwhelmingly, the “science” says that most masks, perhaps with the exception of N95 masks, are ineffective at stopping viral transmission. Recall in 2020 and early 2021, it quickly became apparent that cloth and linen masks were ineffective because viruses are so small that they easily pass through the pores of these masks. Paper masks that do not make a tight seal with the face are likewise useless. N95 masks, which make a tight seal to the face (unless the wearer has facial hair) and are also referred to as surgical respirators, may have some protection against viruses, but are uncomfortable to wear and can be claustrophobic.

But many masks have serious negative consequences. A study published in the “Journal of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety” in May indicated that masks may pose significant risks to wearers because of toxins emitted by tight-fitting face coverings. The researchers found that the concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from many non-cloth masks were 22.9 to 147 times higher than masks made of cotton. VOCs often provide odors that we notice, for example that “new car smell.” They occur naturally but are often used in the manufacture of paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants, according to the EPA. Inhaling them can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; difficulty breathing; headaches; nausea; damage to the central nervous system; and cancer.

A 2022 study highlighted the toxic chemicals found in many masks, plus the negative consequences of “covering up.” Phthalates are widely used chemicals that impact human health. They make masks more versatile and flexible, but at a price to pay. They are not chemically bonded to the mask materials but used as an additive. Per the “Journal of Hazardous Materials,” almost 90% of mask samples contained carcinogens. So, the risks of masking may outweigh the benefits. Also, masks themselves have adverse effects including:

  • Decreased oxygen levels
  • Decreased minute ventilation (less air in and out)
  • Increased blood carbon dioxide levels
  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature
  • Discomfort, including claustrophobia
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Skin irritation including acne
  • Dizziness

Finally, because masks interfere with oxygenation and carbon dioxide release, they may cause mask-induced exhaustion syndrome (MIES), which may mimic long-Covid symptoms. Despite all this, some people, especially if they are in crowded public spaces, should wear a mask as per the CDC recommendations. They are people who are elderly or have compromised immune systems (i.e., have HIV, or are transplant recipients, people on steroids for autoimmune diseases, people who have chronic lymphocytic leukemia [CLL], or people on cancer chemotherapy). They should use an N95 mask and open it at least 30 minutes before they wear it so that it may “breathe,” or allow the chemicals infused in it to evaporate.

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