In less than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 1.5 million people worldwide, including more than 300,000 in the United States alone. Despite abundant amounts of data showing that coronavirus face mask protection slows the spread of this deadly virus, skepticism still exists about its efficacy. One of the most popular myths about face masks is that they cause carbon dioxide poisoning. This couldn't be further from the truth. Let's explore how this claim gained traction and why it's completely false.
How a Preposterous Claim About Face Masks Gained Traction
Deniers voice several reasons for their opposition to face masks. But one claim that masks cause oxygen deprivation in the brain gained unprecedented traction. How, you ask? Social media (of course)!
A Facebook post that transcribed a video message from neurologist Margareta Griesz-Brisson stated that masks can cause neurological damage, especially in children: "The rebreathing of our exhaled air will without a doubt create oxygen deficiency and a flooding of carbon dioxide. We know that the human brain is very sensitive to oxygen deprivation. There are nerve cells, for example in the hippocampus, that can’t be longer than three minutes without oxygen – they cannot survive," the post claimed.
It didn't take long for this post to become viral. Copies of it have been removed from YouTube for violating its terms of service. And even though Facebook doesn't take aggressive enough action against misinformation, many users of the social media platform did show initial skepticism about the post's statements. When they asked the original poster if she fact-checked the information prior to posting it, she never responded.
Many Medical Experts Refute Dangerous Face Mask Claims
Since the post mentioned above achieved viral status, medical experts have had to spend countless hours disputing nonsensical claims that face masks can cause your oxygen level to drop to a dangerous degree.
"While masks can block particles like respiratory droplets and aerosols that might contain coronavirus, they do not block gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide," explains Linsey Marr. She's a Virginia Tech professor of environmental engineering and expert on airborne disease transmission. "A recent study of people wearing surgical masks while walking around found no significant changes in carbon dioxide in their breath nor oxygen in their blood, compared to walking without a mask."
Jonathan Parson, an Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center pulmonologist and director of the Ohio State Asthma Center, also addressed oxygen deprivation claims in a post on his institution's official website: "Fortunately, the flurry of complaints has also given rise to a number of highly effective demonstrations in which medical professionals display their excellent oxygen levels while trying on different masks – and sometimes multiple masks at once." Parsons went on to explain that many professions regularly used masks before the COVID-19 pandemic, and nobody in these careers has suffered from it.
The University of California-San Diego Health office took things a step further by posting a video on YouTube. In it, a participant dons four face masks at once. According to a pulse oximeter, her oxygen level remained at 98% the whole time. At one point in the video, she wears six face masks simultaneously. Consequently, her oxygen levels dropped to 97%, which is still safe — normal oxygen levels fall between 95% to 100%, according to experts.
Do Face Masks Harm Children?
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly recommends wearing face mask protection, it does advise that children under the age of 2 abstain from doing so. You're probably wondering, why is that? Well it actually has nothing to do with oxygen deprivation or carbon dioxide exposure.
"One of the reasons is that they can’t wear it effectively," explains Nicole Iovine, a University of Florida infectious disease expert and epidemiologist. "They’re constantly touching their faces, so it makes it a moot point. We also don’t have a lot of masks that would fit a 2-year-old."
It's worth mentioning that masks are recommended and safe for children older than 2. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "The vast majority of children age 2 or older can safely wear a cloth face covering for extended periods of time, such as the school day or at child care. This includes children with many medical conditions."
Want to Know What Causes Neurological Issues? COVID-19
It's well known that oxygen deprivation can cause neurological damage. No medical studies or research supports the idea that face masks cause oxygen deprivation. But you know what can cause this? COVID-19.
Several studies have linked the coronavirus to neurological problems like confusion, seizures, and strokes. In fact, recent research from the New York University Grossman School of Medicine found that one in seven COVID-19 infected patients experienced these issues.
"The neurological complications seen in COVID-19 are predominately the secondary effects of being severely ill and suffering from low oxygen levels in the body for prolonged periods of time," said NYU neurology professor Dr. Jennifer Frontera in a news release.
The Bottom Line? Wear Face Mask Protection
Research shows that people are at far greater risk of experiencing the symptoms erroneously attributed to face masks in the social media post mentioned above by not wearing a face mask. Thus, the main message here is: Wear face mask protection! Whether it's surgical masks, neck gaiters, or homemade cloth masks, please wear one when you go out in public.
The second moral of the story here is to not believe everything you see on social media. Platforms like Facebook have become dangerous avenues for misinformation to propagate. In the case of the specific viral post we've been discussing, Facebook was used to amplify a message that makes claims which directly counter the truth.
We know that face masks can be uncomfortable. If you feel like you're having trouble breathing in yours, check out this blog post we made on how to breathe easier. Now that COVID-19 vaccines are being administered around the world, the end of this pandemic is almost in sight. Don't let your guard down — continue to wear face masks, wash your hands frequently, and social distance.
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