Sustainable masks & face coverings for 2022 & beyond

My personal evaluation of three consumer grade elastomeric respirators is available further down in this post: Breathe99 B2, FLO Mask, and ZShield Reveal.3 brands of reusable face mask: B2, Reveal, FLO

As of July 2022, many people claim to be “over COVID;” I’m not one of them. I continue to mask regularly. I cover my face to protect a high risk member of my household, and because I have enough uncomfortable health issues of my own already. The specter of long COVID looms large enough to make indoor masking my preference.

Long COVID is most common in middle aged people, affecting as many as one in four recovered patients according to a Nature news feature. The CDC gives me better odds than 25% in their Data for Long COVID section, but, the fact is, no one yet knows the true prevalence of the condition.

Long term, I see no reason to ever stop masking in crowded conditions such as boarding a flight or on mass transit, though my specific level of vigilance will probably vary as this pandemic wanes and flu season comes and goes.Disposable surgical mask

The particular genesis of today’s post was a New York Times article by Andrew Jacobs published July 3, 2022. It’s worth reading, but the gist is that American hospitals should have learned the supply chain lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic and switched to elastomeric respirators for essential healthcare workers by now.

Elastomeric respirators are reusable face coverings using replaceable filter elements that work as well as disposable N95s to block the flow of germs. Many are domestically produced, to boot, in marked contrast to the largely imported supply of disposable masks.

Widespread adoption of elastomeric respirators would solve the problem of being dependent upon a hostile foreign nation for vital supplies while offering equal or better protection to each wearer with a better fit and simultaneously creating less waste.

Win-win-win.Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines elastomer as a noun, "any of various elastic substances resembing rubber"

The “elastomeric” part of the elastomeric respirator just means the body of the filtering face mask in question is stretchy or otherwise like rubber.

If the NYT article is to be believed, elastomeric respirators are often judged more comfortable by the wearer than N95s. Disposable filters are still required, but they might require only annual replacement for a few dollars, while the main body of the device—composed of washable silicone—should last a decade at a one time cost of $15-40 each.

For about two thirds of the money spent by the Trump administration attempting to sterilize and re-use N95s, we could have outfitted each of the nation’s 18 million health care workers with an elastomeric respirator according to Nicolas Smit as quoted in Jacobs’ article.Pile of money

Or, to harp on the affordability point from a different angle, a paper published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons showed: “Outfitting… workers [with elastomeric respirators] was one-tenth as expensive than supplying them with disposable N95s. A separate study found that after one year, the filters were still 99 percent effective.”

And, given the chance to switch back to N95s after the study period in question, none of the employees opted to do so. I take that to mean those healthcare workers found the alternative masks easier to wear or use.

Toward the end of the New York Times piece was a mention of just one particular small business that’s giving up in the face of the healthcare system’s irrational insistence on sticking with disposable, imported masks. Breathe99—whose elastomeric respirator made the cover of Time magazine in 2020 as an innovation prize-winner—is winding down operations at the company’s Minnesota plant.

I followed the link, and found that I could purchase Breathe99’s B2 mask at retail as of early July 2022. Since I still see daily death reports in my newspaper, I remain in the market for comfortable, effective face coverings. I decided to resume exploration of better Personal Protective Equipment (P.P.E.), hoping I can reduce waste while staying safe.

I don’t buy disposable water bottles or accept single use plastic cutlery when I get takeout food, so why should I continue to rely upon paper face masks when more comfortable, equally effective alternatives exist?

One caveat: there are officially approved elastomeric respirators for clinical use, but consumer grade options are unlikely to be officially NIOSH approved. Whether this is due to pandemic backlogs or if it is just a regulatory grey area, I’m not informed enough to say. Just be aware that we still have no official designation for effective, FDA-approved consumer grade face coverings.

Now that mask mandates have ended and masking is a voluntary, personal choice in most settings, the up side to all of that reckless abandon is that no one is likely to complain about any specific face covering I acquire or wear. There should be no push back to the lack of an official protection rating for any mask I select.

On the down side, I’m left having to hope these products actually work as designed, and as represented by their manufacturers. I’m “doing my own research” here because I have no choice if I want a comfortable, well-fitting, effective face covering. I do go all the way to published papers from scientific journals and material spec sheets whenever possible.

For example, here’s a USA Today fact checking story about why filter media with a physical pore size of around 0.3 micron can be quite efficient at stopping SARS-CoV-2 viral particles which are themselves closer to 0.1 micron.

One clear takeaway of the past couple of years is that any mask offers better protection from airborne viruses than a bare face does. I do feel confident that I won’t end up worse off than I would be wearing a cloth mask or an ill-fitting surgical one when I don a tight-sealing face covering utilizing an effective filter medium at the point(s) where all my breath enters or exits the device.

The author wearing an improvised home-made face covering in 2020

This improvised face covering was my first attempt at masking when the idea was introduced to the general public in 2020. This loose, single layer of fabric is obviously not protective in the way a fitted non-woven medical mask would be, but I crafted it for passing strangers on walks around my neighborhood, so, in hindsight, I wasn’t at high risk when I wore it.

I will compare and contrast three intriguing designs that I’ve purchased at retail and tested for myself for the reader’s convenience. Because these elastomeric products are relatively expensive—from $60 to 90 per starter kit—I hope my comparison will help others pick a useful style.

Because of the note of doom sounded by the NYT article that sent me down this path, I advise anyone picking up one of these expensive face coverings to stock up on specialized, custom fit filters while they are still available. We as a society seem to have learned very little from the deprivations and death wrought by COVID-19. Even top quality, well designed products may be dropped from the market if their makers go out of business.

I ordered three different face coverings direct via their manufacturer’s web sites, paying the stated retail price. Here’s the list including the July 2022 list price:

  1. B2 mask by Breathe99 as referenced in the NYT article ($59.99)
  2. FLO Mask for adults or children though I’m only testing the adult version ($89.99)
  3. ZShield Reveal rigid mask which I pre-ordered and got in 2021 ($89.99)

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Dear Merriam-Webster, you should define “immolation” better than this!

I sincerely enjoy a good dictionary. I use a hardcover American Heritage edition a couple of times a week, the Merriam- Webster app or a paid Kindle version of several foreign language dictionaries often, and online lookups almost every day.

Recently, I was disappointed by Merriam- Webster online. I looked up “immolation,” mostly because it’s the kind of word whose correct spelling I prefer to confirm before using it in a post. Here’s what M-W had to say:

Screenshot immolation definintion MWI have to ask: seriously? This is the best definition you can provide?

If I don’t know what immolation means, I probably also don’t know the meaning of immolating or immolated, without which knowledge I can get no use from this definition.

And the example provides no new clues. Well, except that Aztecs performed “bloody” immolations, which still leaves the reader free to imagine any number of possible meanings.

img_7315In an age when most of the students I know prefer to “ask Siri” instead of looking up unknown words for themselves, I’d like to see Merriam- Webster and other dictionaries proving their worth at every opportunity.

I think this is one definition that could be done by Merriam-Webster much better.

Hanukkah family fun, night 4: Shout to the Lord… with giant stereo speakers

Go back to Night 3, here.

The King James Bible translates Psalm 100 as:

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness…

A Chabad reference gives us this English version of the same verse:

A song for a thanksgiving offering. Shout to the Lord, all the earth.

Serve the Lord with joy…

Today, the latter may be more apt for our situation. I gave DH and the rest of the family a set of three Polk Audio speakers for the fourth night of Hanukkah. These were installed in our main living area, and will be used for both music and to add surround sound to our television setup.

Hanukkah 4 speaker with soundbar - 1

In case you’re wondering, a Polk Audio CSi A6 center channel speaker fits perfectly in an IKEA Pax Wardrobe Frame (shallow 13″ depth.) I’ll tidy those cords later. Demoted soundbar shown at front.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. While it is true that we are a household that places limits on media consumption by the kids—probably more so than an average American family—it is also true that, like most modern humans, we spend a fair bit of time on our couch in front of the tv.

We’ve had our various media components hooked up through a receiver for several years, but, when our old bookshelf speakers got disconnected during out last move—relics, themselves, from a former audio system—I did the expedient thing and replaced them with an inexpensive sound bar from Costco.

I’m not an audiophile, but I did notice that a puny soundbar in one corner leads to tinny sound when I play music for the dinner table at the opposite end of a 1000 square foot great room.

I’m not interested enough to become truly educated about speakers and sound systems. I am smart enough to read up a little then consult an expert for specific buying guidance. Many thanks to my advisor, CJ from Crutchfield. Having had success being talked through installing our own car stereo by these guys, I figured the purchase and installation of a set of speakers would be manageable, and trusted their advice.

Hanukkah 4 speaker with kid - 1

The speaker, Polk Audio model RTi A7, is the one not wearing sweatpants.

Measuring at about the height and weight of a seven year old child, the powerful front speakers provide a strong presence in our very large room on several levels. They fit our space, then can provide sufficient sound to fill our space, and the cherry wood veneer complements our living space visually.

Being prone, as I’ve admitted, to serial enthusiasms, it took a great deal of self control to stop at a 3.1 system (two large, floor standing front speakers and a center channel for the all important television dialogue) once I dove into the world of Big, Awesome Sound.

Hanukkah 4 speaker in box - 1

Any bigger, and our teen and his grandfather couldn’t have gotten these speakers up the stairs

I can see how our receiver could use an upgrade. A subwoofer would really thrill my guys during the action movies they enjoy. And, without rear speakers, how will we ever hear those creatures creeping up behind us when the suspense is building?

Ah, but there are only eight nights of Hanukkah, and the budget has its limits. These new toys should prove delightful in and of themselves. Though it was a struggle given my nature, this is me practicing self restraint.

And the new speakers? They sounds great!

DH was even prompted to hook up some music components that had been gathering dust since our move. He doesn’t take enough to time to enjoy his own hobbies, always working too hard and taking care of us first, so it was great to watch him fool around with a stereo and play some of his own tunes.

I did have to tell him to turn that noise down after a while, but, with speakers like these, that was to be expected.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 4 light candles

חגחנוכהשמח

Click here to read about Night 5.

*Psalms are known as Tehillim in a Jewish context. Tehillim translates as “Praises” from the Hebrew, just as Psalms does from the Greek.

“Teenagers, Kick Our Butts” is my parenting anthem

I’d like to talk about a song that I consider my parenting anthem:

Teenagers, Kick Our Butts by Dar Williams

If you enjoy indie folk music, you should definitely give it a listen. For those with different musical tastes, just read the lyrics and follow along.

Dar Williams End of the Summer

“Teenagers, Kick Our Butts” is track 6 on Dar Williams’ album End of the Summer

Some of the song’s lessons apply to raising kids well before the teenage years. I’ve been playing it in the car since my boys were little, and I’ve always pointed out certain lyrics, making clear these were sentiments with which I agree.

…I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn
But that’s not your fault, that’s just your turn, yeah, yeah…

…Find your voice, do what it takes
Make sure you make lots of mistakes…

Beginning this conversation when they were young was meant to pave the way for the impending struggles of adolescence. I wanted them to know that I was aware of the future when they would reject my authority, and that some of that was not just tolerated, but to be celebrated.

…Teenagers, kick our butts, tell us what the future will bring
Teenagers look at us, we have not solved everything

We drink and smoke to numb our pain
We read junk novels on the plane
We use authority for show so we can be a little smarter
We still can grow, and many do
It’s when we stop we can’t reach you
We feel the loss, you feel the blame
We’re scared to lose, don’t be the same, hey hey…

I talked to my little boys about the older kids they knew: young teens from school, older cousins, and family friends. I tried to point out gallant gestures made by gentle young men, and raise questions about the motivations of more rowdyish examples.

…Some felt afraid and undefended, so they got mean
And they pretended what they knew made them belong more than you….

…I’m here today because I fought for what I felt and what I thought
They put me down they, were just wrong
And now it’s they who don’t belong, oh, oh…

Lately, as I’ve discussed with my own teen the popularity and value of a contentious novel revolving around a girl’s tragic suicide, I’ve been able to point back at a well-known verse from the same old favorite:

…And when the media tries to act your age
Don’t be seduced, they’re full of rage…

I adore seeing this pointed out so succinctly.

New Media can be a legitimate forum for the formerly disenfranchised (e.g., youth), but it’s equally true that most of what achieves popularity gets bought out by the same old media cartels. Consumers of media must learn to be exceedingly critical of every source lest they inadvertently find themselves dancing to the tune of an unknown, objectionable master.

And what’s the alternative to blindly consuming pap that’s been prepared for you? Some people never learn to peek behind the curtain and discover the humbug working distracting magic tricks in the name of the Wizard. Here’s an answer by way of my favorite lyric again, this time expanded for the audience approaching maturity:

…Find your voice, do what it takes
Make sure you make lots of mistakes
And find the future that redeems
Give us hell, give us dreams
And grow and grow and grow

And someday when some teenagers come to kick your butts
Well then like I do try to
Love…

The funny thing is, I’ve always heard that final lyric differently. Williams sings it in a set of long, drawn out syllables rising up and down the octave, obscuring the simple word “love.” When I sing it, I’ve always twisted those same notes into the word:

“Learn”

I’d like my kids to discover the value in both lessons.