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)

Continue reading

Roasting vegetables is the right recipe for pandemic winter

  • Hate to cook?
  • Trying to shop less frequently because of a pandemic?
  • Know you should eat more vegetables, but enjoy almost every other food more?
  • Spending more time working and/or learning from home?

If, like me, you tick all these boxes, you should start roasting root vegetables as soon as possible. Best of all, you will have an excuse to purchase a rutabaga. If there’s a vegetable that’s more fun to name, I have yet to hear of it.

Say it out loud: ROOT-uh-BEG-uh! You’re smiling now, right?

Plate of oven roasted carrot, beet, turnip, sweet potato and onionYou will need access to an oven or a toaster oven to cook veggies this way. Beyond that, all that’s required is about one hour and:

  • a sheet pan or other wide, shallow, oven-safe cookware
  • oil
  • salt or other, more sophisticated seasonings
  • vegetables
  • cutting board or plate and a sharp knife

Primal Kitchen avocado oil and Kirkland Himalayan pink saltYou can roast many other things, but the long storing properties of most root vegetables make them ideal for a COVID-19 era menu. Broccoli comes in little bunches; potatoes are sold in great big bags. Shelf life is the main reason for the discrepancy.

Root vegetables in storage boxes and bags: carrot, beet, turnipHere’s a nice resource discussing healthy root vegetables and their nutritional characteristics.

In normal times, many people rush home after work and need dinner on the table within minutes. Roasting is a long, slow process, ill-suited to that kind of lifestyle. Now that a greater* proportion of us are working from home due to the pandemic, however, this kind of “prep it, put it in the oven, then ignore it for an hour while you get back to work” recipe is a lot more accessible.

I was introduced to the concept of roasting root vegetables by a functional nutritionist to whom I was referred by my primary care physician. I suspected that my diet affected the symptoms of my autoimmune condition, but I struggled under the burden of cooking every bite of food for myself given my near total lack of enjoyment of time in the kitchen. This was the best idea the nutritionist gave me from a fairly wide array.

Before I started roasting vegetables, I didn’t buy turnips, rutabagas, or parsnips. Now, I usually keep at least a couple of each on hand because it is so easy to prepare them this way, and the results invariably taste good. Note that these are not vegetables I typically enjoy otherwise.

If you’d like a professionally produced set of step by step instructions, feel free to carry on with Epicurious instead of my low budget advice. Otherwise, here’s my 2 ¢ as the laziest possible chef.

Recipe for roasted root vegetables

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 450° F if you remember; if you don’t, allow more cooking time. This is not a fussy recipe.
  2. Wash all your vegetables, and peel if you prefer.
  3. Chop vegetables into uniform, small-ish pieces.
  4. Pour—or brush with a pastry brush or a bit of paper towel—a thin film of oil onto your baking sheet, lined with foil or a silicone mat first if you prefer.
  5. Spread vegetables in a single layer on prepared baking sheet.
  6. Drizzle with a little oil, and sprinkle on salt and/or pepper, Borsari, or other dried herbs or spices.Borsari original seasoned salt bottle
  7. Roast vegetables, lowering heat to 425° F for about 20 minutes. Check at the 20 minute mark, stirring and flipping pieces over. Continue roasting in 10-15 minute increments until you think they’re done. Look for some darkened edges, or note when the sharp odor of raw vegetables is replaced by the sweeter scent of cooked ones. If in doubt, a total cooking time of 45-60 minutes is probably about right, and most vegetables won’t hurt you if raw or under-cooked, unlike meat.

Roasted vegetables on Silpat lined half sheet panVeg roasting tips from an unseasoned cook

My most often roasted vegetables are sweet potato, carrot, beet, and parsnip, but I use turnips and rutabagas pretty often, too. I have yet to regret roasting any vegetable, but, in my experience, the watery ones seem like extra work for less deliciousness.

Unless you’re cooking for my husband or a similar philistine, always include one small onion with your other vegetables. Caramelized onion is just so tasty unless you hate onions, and maybe even then, and even a small amount lends tons of flavor to the entire rest of the tray of vegetables.

Chop up your vegetables to the size you like to eat. I make little pieces that look like breakfast hash for myself; my husband prefers heftier chunks, a bit larger than dice. I can cook both in the same oven for about the same amount of time with no ill effects, so I’d say the size is purely a matter of personal taste.

Don’t crowd the pan! I always do, and the results will be softer, more “steamed” vegetables with less of the really yummy, caramelized, crunchy bits. Use a larger pan than you think need, and you’ll get the tastiest results. If, like me, you prioritize getting that last dish into the dishwasher instead, just recognize that a smaller batch might turn out better.

Proper chefs on the internet tell me I would get crispier, more delicious vegetables if I used an unlined baking sheet. I use a Silpat non-stick silicone mat anyway. Again, I prioritize easy clean up, and the food ends up good enough for me either way.

Try roasting vegetables you don’t think you like. You may feel differently about them once roasted! I do not normally care for beets or parsnips, but I like them roasted. I like raw carrots, but hate them cooked moist say in a soup; I love them roasted. You can see where I’m going with this. Your experience could differ, but this is a wonderful way to try eating unusual produce that might not normally appear in your diet. Most of us benefit from the addition of greater variety in this category.

Offer roasted vegetables to your kids, possibly not mentioning exactly what they are until they’ve rendered a verdict on taste. Make sure the distinct varietals are different colors so you can identify favorites for future reference. Encourage your kids to eat a whole rainbow of foods. Let them select spices from your cupboard and try roasting with them, possibly by sniffing each bottle until they find one that smells tempting.

My favorite is Borsari Original Seasoned Salt. This is the only “mixed” seasoning in my spice cupboard. It is delicious on duck… and everything else I’ve tried it with. A Whole Foods employee recommended it to me c. 2003.

* 7% of Americans reported being able to work remotely prior to the pandemic; as of October 2020, one third of us are working from home all the time, and 25% report doing so some of the time. More than half of Americans have worked from home for at least part of the pandemic.