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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Prevalent smoking should, perhaps, keep you from visiting Austria

Austria is a lovely place to visit. It has gorgeous scenery, world class art and architecture to enjoy, and a population that generally struck me as warm and welcoming.

img_0895Bilingual acquaintances from the German language learning camp in Minnesota we attended told us that we would be given more opportunity to practice our speaking skills in Austria when compared with Germany. I found this to be true.

Austrians were, as a rule, friendly and helpful. They really didn’t immediately switch to English when they heard my attempts to speak deutsch. (Germans generally do, in my experience. And, yes, their English is better than my German, almost to the man, and woman, and very small child...)

 

Perhaps the one overriding negative experienced by an American tourist in Österreich—if the language barrier is a benefit to you as it is to me, as opposed to a real barrier—is the constant exposure to second hand smoke.

img_1055.jpgI’m old enough to remember the bad old days of smoking sections in the closed compartment of an airplane, though, thankfully, those disappeared before I began flying several times per year to attend college. Smoky bars and restaurants where I wouldn’t go with my friends due to air pollution were a real issue well into my young adulthood.

Being in Austria is like being transported into the past in this regard. It took me several days to adjust. Young people in the USA today probably don’t have the adaptive response to scope out a cafe before taking a seat lest one inadvertently land in the stinking smoking section.

Though there was some Austrian legislation enacted in recent years to create separate smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants, I still experienced unpleasantly smoky interiors several times during my trip.

Worse yet, it seems that Austrians don’t feel a need to segregate outdoor space for both smokers and non-smokers in any way. Some of us are sensitive enough that, no, even being seated the great outdoors is not enough to make it okay to sit at a table adjacent to or downwind from an active smoker.

My eyes water, and I start to cough. It’s not posturing; the smoke simply does affect me that quickly. My tearing eyes swelling shut and the irritation in my throat make me look around for the source, not the other way around.

Worse yet, because smoking is taken so much for granted in Austria, newcomers into a restaurant or onto a terrace who plan to smoke don’t think to take seats at a maximum distance from non-smokers who are already there. Try though I did to sit “far away” from all the smokers in otherwise lovely cafes, I was constantly being smoked out by new arrivals in Austria.

img_9405

These polite Austrian smokers sat at the stern of our pleasure cruise ship on the Danube, but the entire open top deck stank of cigar smoke from one man sitting forward at the bow

I gather that the xenophobic right wing government* currently in power is working to defend the rights of smokers even more violently valiantly in Austria. What a tragedy for the health of Austria’s citizens. Because, while I am easily swayed by libertarian arguments on many issues, smoking is simply not the same as free thought or speech.

The smoker has at least the option of a filter between himself and the known carcinogen he opts to ignite and inhale; standing nearby, my right to breathe freely is stolen from me.

Smoking in public places fundamentally infringes on the health and safety of others in the space. There are few other vices so directly malevolent to the public good.

Heavy drinker? While you could overindulge and vomit onto my shoes, you may be a quiet, maudlin drunk and not affect me at all. There is no equivalent for smokers. Anyone in the presence of a lit cigarette is being affected; the only remedy is to leave.

When someone invents the “smoker’s spacesuit” that operates with complete isolation of its user’s air supply and exhaust, there will be room to discuss the rights of smokers to light up in crowded public spaces.

I acknowledge your right to smoke, but I’d say the responsibility you shoulder when exercising that right is to maintain a great distance between yourself and others while you do so. The fact that you can no longer smell smoke from a few feet away is a part of the burden you’ve elected to carry with your habit; healthy people can be negatively affected at a dozen feet or more.

I was charmed by many kind, witty, thoughtful Austrians whom I encountered there. It was otherwise a wonderful place to visit, and there are many sights around the country I’d love to come back to see. Until a more modern and health-conscious public smoking policy has been enacted, however, I will probably stay away, and I would most certainly never take my asthmatic child to such a dangerous place.

Schade. What a shame.

*Self styled as the “Freedom Party,” though formed by former Nazi party members after WWII. Once again, do we see the same party harming others to grant themselves more freedom to enjoy their own lives?

A NY Times article I read while writing this post goes into more details of the political situation.