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Hazard Alert Just Issued About These Face Masks

They could do more harm than good in the battle against coronavirus.

Up to 70% of N95 masks imported from China may not meet US effectiveness standards, potentially leaving healthcare workers vulnerable to coronavirus infection.

The nonprofit patient safety organization ECRI issued a hazard alert about the masks Tuesday.

"Because of the dire situation, US hospitals bought hundreds of thousands of masks produced in China over the past six months, and we're finding that many aren't safe and effective against the spread of COVID-19," said Marcus Schabacker, ECRI president and CEO, in a statement.

ECRI researchers tested almost 200 N95-style masks purchased by major hospitals and healthcare systems in the US. They found that 60% to 70% of imported masks that weren't certified by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) had "significantly inferior" filtration performance compared to NIOSH-certified N95s. The designation N95 is supposed to signify masks that filter 95% of airborne particulates. ECRI found that the majority of imported masks did not.

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"Using masks that don't meet US standards puts patients and frontline healthcare workers at risk of infection. As ECRI research shows, we strongly recommend that healthcare providers going forward do more due diligence before purchasing masks that aren't made or certified in America," said Schabacker.

The organization recommended that healthcare providers wear NIOSH-approved masks, using non-NIOSH masks only as a last resort.

So what does this mean for you? 

How to Choose a Face Mask

Health officials have consistently advised that people who aren't healthcare providers refrain from purchasing N95 masks, to preserve the limited supply for people on the pandemic's front lines. Earlier this year, N95s became scarce; the ECRI study may portend another shortage if healthcare workers shift away from imported masks. 

The good news is that you don't need an N95 face masks to significantly reduce your chances of contracting coronavirus or transmitting it to other people. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert, says wearing a basic face mask reduces your risk of infection between 50% and 80%. 

According to CDC guidelines, the best kinds of face masks to buy are those with two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric; or surgical masks. A mask should fit securely around your mouth and nose, and snugly against the sides of your face without gaps.

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The types of masks that should be avoided are masks with exhalation valves and neck gaiters, which are worn around the neck and pulled up to wrap loosely around the nose and mouth—studies have found they are not effective in blocking the transmission of the virus.

Face shields may be an additional option for protection, but only in combination with a face mask. Last month, Fauci said that because coronavirus enters the body through mucous membranes, it might be worthwhile to protect your eyes with goggles or a face shield. But by themselves, face shields don't adequately protect others from the wearer's respiratory droplets, and the CDC doesn't yet recommend plastic face shields for routine use.

How To Stay Healthy

Fauci strongly recommends you wear a face mask, avoid crowds, practice social distancing, wash your hands frequently, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more about Michael
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