Reassuring new research finds that most face masks used by people during the pandemic don’t have high levels of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
The chemicals, which have been linked to numerous health harms, are used in many products to repel fluids, but there’s been little research into their presence in face masks.
That’s a potential concern because people have been wearing face masks for extended periods of time during the pandemic, which could possibly expose them to PFAS through inhalation, skin exposure or accidental ingestion, the study authors noted.
Also, used masks end up in landfills, where the PFAS might leach out into the environment, according to researcher Ivan Titaley at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, and colleagues.
To assess the risks, the investigators measured PFAS in nine types of face masks: one surgical, one N95, six reusable cloth masks, and a heat-resistant fabric mask marketed to firefighters.
The surgical and N95 masks had the lowest levels of PFAS, while the firefighting mask had the highest, the study authors said in a news release from the American Chemical Society.
The researchers also used previous animal studies to estimate the dose of PFAS that could cause health problems in people from chronic exposure. They concluded that regular use of the surgical, N95 and cloth masks would not pose such a risk.
The higher PFAS levels in the firefighter mask exceeded the dose considered safe, but only when worn for a full day (10 hours) at high activity levels, such as exercising or working in ways that boost wearers’ breathing rates, the findings showed.
In the next phase of the study, the researchers examined the environmental impact of PFAS from surgical and N95 masks, which account for 99% of masks in landfills. Even if everyone in the United States over age 5 threw away one mask per day (90 billion masks per year), masks would be only a minor source of PFAS in landfill leaching and household water, according to the report published March 30 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
The findings should encourage people to keep wearing face masks during the pandemic, the authors concluded.
For more on PFAS, go to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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