The Mask, Revisited

Back on April 11, 2011, I wrote a blog on using a mask (like, for example, a surgical mask over the nose and mouth) to protect yourself from the obnoxious and dangerous things that sometimes foul our air.  I noted that there are different types of masks, and each must be used properly for it to work.  Pollution requires one type of mask, surgery another, dust another, protection from organic vapors still another.

But as I watch television of disasters, generally in other countries because Americans are not big on wearing masks, I still notice that most people who use masks don’t use them properly.  The major guiding principle in wearing a mask is that in order to work, the air must pass through the matrix of the mask.  A mask doesn’t work if there are holes in it, or if it is worn improperly so that it doesn’t fit the face.  It has to be air tight all the way around.  I see so many people wearing the old-fashioned rectangular surgical-type mask in inappropriate situations, and with an opening on each side.  The air that person is breathing is flowing in and out through those openings, not through the mask itself, and as a result, the person is getting absolutely no protection at all.  Why wear a mask if you aren’t going to use it properly?

(By the way, most hospitals now use masks that fit tightly around the nose and mouth, and have stopped using the older, rectangular masks.)

So, what should you do if you want to wear a mask to protect yourself from bad airborne stuff?  First, get the proper type of mask.  Second, read the directions and fit the mask to your face so that it is air-tight all the way around.  The most common mask, the type that used to be worn in surgery, can protect you against some airborne particulate matter such as dust, and perhaps even pollen, but not all, assuming you get it fitted tightly.  It won’t protect you against air pollution since air pollution consists not only of particulate matter, but also of gasses such as oxides of nitrogen and sulfur and other unpleasant stuff, and that type of mask won’t filter out airborne gas.  If, on the other hand, you’re working in a woodworking shop where wood dust predominates, get a mask that will filter out that type of dust.  If you are exposed to organic vapors, as I was when I was staining and finishing some wood projects I’ve made, then a mask with cartridges that absorb organic vapors would be the right choice.  In short, get the right type of mask and wear it properly.  Just throwing on a surgical mask may not work in all situations.  Just saying…

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