Will Face Masks Have Certification Standards Soon?

Will Face Masks Have Certification Standards Soon?

Face mask protection has been one of the most contentious topics of 2020. Whether people should wear them or not and what qualifies as adequate COVID-19 protection have been at the center of some of the most heated arguments around the world this year. Ten months into the pandemic, and there are still no formal standards for what proper face mask protection looks like. But that may soon change.

The American Society for Testing and Materials, also known as ASTM International, is an association that sets standards for a variety of products. The organization is currently working with manufacturers and scientists to determine and develop guidelines for the filtration efficiency of cloth masks and other face-covering options.

A Need for Face Mask Standards?

If you want to be able to easily tell just how efficient a certain type of face mask is at air particle filtration, you may be in luck. Masks may soon be getting a set of standards thanks to ASTM International. This organization has set technical standards for everything from drones to amusement park rides. Now, it's working with industry professionals and government partners to make guidelines for face masks. Once these standards are set, face mask coverings that meet them shall bear a label certifying their validity.

Experts believe that face mask standards are sorely needed. People are donning a variety of covering options when they venture out into public. Homemade masks, neck gaiters, N95 respirators, bandanas, and even t-shirts are just a few examples. And each one offers a different amount of protection in terms of the particles that they block.

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As its name implies, N95 respirators can filter out 95% of airborne particles bigger than 0.3 microns. Public health experts around the world have urged people to refrain from buying and using these since they should be reserved for medical workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis. But the masks that are available to the general public aren't required to meet any filtration standards.

In the summer, the World Health Organization (WHO) published recommendations for a multi-fabric face mask. Unfortunately, this design doesn't really align with anything that you'd find in stores.

Dr. Linsey Marr, a professor of environmental engineering who studies aerosols at Virginia Tech, thinks the public needs better guidance regarding face coverings: "We want everyone to be wearing masks… [but] there’s a huge variability in how effective cloth masks are."

Every Factor Must Be Considered

The group of scientists, researchers, and industry experts tasked with drafting the face mask standards have not reached a consensus yet. Jennifer Marshall, the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) program manager for public safety standards coordination, says that one of the main problems is deciding just how effective face masks should be at blocking particles. "One of the concerns is how much is leaked through and around the barrier and the best way to measure it," she explained in an interview with Quartz.

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Usability is another crucial element that must be considered. Marshall says, "There’s a balance to blocking particulates and breathability, and ultimately masks need to be comfortable and wearable." Early on in the pandemic, suppliers in the promotional products industry had to make a judgment call on usability and filtration. As a result of this time with no universal guidelines, a variety of face masks of different fits and fabrics are now available on the market.

According to Marshall, the ASTM standards will also decide which labs are certified to evaluate face masks as well as set design and labeling requirements. Evaluations could include examining factors such as type, material durability, and how much of a person's face the mask actually covers. ASTM has been hard at work on the guidelines since July, and the new standards could make their debut before 2020's end.

Simple Guidelines Are the Goal

Approximately 50 scientists, government officials, manufacturers, and industrial hygienists comprise the task force behind ASTM's standards. 3M, the company that makes N95 respirators, is also part of the discussion.

People across the globe have been misled many times about face mask efficacy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. During this past summer, Duke University published a now-infamous study that the mass media used to condemn neck gaiters. Not long after, numerous studies showed that face covering performance depended more on fit and layering rather than type. But the damage had already been done, and the public was left to make sense of a plethora of confusing news articles.

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The Duke University example is enough to demonstrate that an agreed-upon set of standards for face masks could help to decrease not only confusion but panic. "Whether it’s a standard or whether it’s something equivalent to the Consumer Reports rating [of] good, better or best, it is probably useful because otherwise people are lost," says Philip Harber, a University of Arizona public health professor. Harber added that the standards should be simple and straightforward to understand.

As COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll out around the world, many people are beginning to let their guard down because they believe that the pandemic's end is in sight. But the truth is that it could still take months, even possibly half a year, for vaccines to reach widespread distribution. With that said, please don't stop wearing your face masks or neck gaiters yet. It's always prudent to practice safety during these turbulent times.

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