We Now Have More Details on Those Consumer Mask Certification Standards in Development
In November, we reported that ASTM International, an independent organization that develops and implements technical standards, has been working with manufacturers like 3M, Honeywell and DuPont, as well as health experts and governing bodies, to set a standard for consumer grade face masks.
Up to this point, every recommendation from health experts has basically been common sense advice and logic based on the simple fact that wearing a face covering can mitigate the spread of COVID-19. But, there’s also been the uncertainty of what types of face coverings outside of medical grade masks reserved for health care workers are most effective, creating confusion over whether a product you buy will actually make a difference.
According to CNN, the standard is in draft phase right now, but we now know some more details about how it will work. ASTM will implement standards for single-use and reusable masks, and will specify requirements and provide evaluation for each item's’ performance. So far, the standards are tiered, measuring a face covering's effectiveness at filtering out particles and its breathability.
The standards are reportedly set for review tomorrow by ASTM and its Subcommittee on Respiratory Hazards, a group made up of educators, government agencies, “industry stakeholders” and more.
“You’ve got all these knockoff masks coming in,” Dr. Donald Milton, a professor of environmental health and viral transmission researcher at the University of Maryland, told CNN. “They’re not very good, claiming to be N95 and they’re not. So having some benchmarks is a step in the right direction.”
Linsey Marr, a professor in civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech with a focus on airborne transmission of viruses, told CNN that a system like this “is desperately needed, because people have no guidance at all right now.”
Here's what we know so far about the standard:
For starters, each mask will require a set of instructions for the customer, showing them how the mask should properly fit and how to clean it.
On the manufacturing side, the standards would prohibit the use of vents and valves, which allow for the passage of airborne toxins when exhaling. It would also reportedly require manufacturers to test all of their facial coverings in accredited labs to conform with ASTM labeling designations and certify performance.
That labeling system is key. Let’s say you’re shopping for a new mask that you’d wear to the grocery store. With a clear labeling system on each mask, you can immediately see that a product does or doesn’t perform to the standard set by ASTM, and therefore how effective it would be for a given use.
The standard would test masks in two main areas: breathability and filtration efficiency.
As Dr. Anthony Fauci outlined recently, the more layers of filtration, the more effective a face covering is at stopping the spread of a virus. That’s the “common sense” we previously noted. But, it could also make it harder to breathe comfortably.
The ASTM standard would be a tiered system with two levels. Level 1 designation would indicate that a mask filters 20% of particles—easy to breathe, but not that effective against a virus. Level 2 certification would indicate that it filters at least 50% of particles, but is less breathable.
“The use of the ‘levels’ defines a classification system intended to aid in understanding potential tradeoffs for higher levels of filtration efficiency with airflow (breathing) resistance,” Jonathan Szaladja, deputy director of the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory, told CNN.
It’s also important to understand that those 20% and 50% benchmarks aren’t arbitrary. And though they might seem low, it’s more solid within the context of the nature of COVID-19.
“That criteria is for a certain size particle that is really the hardest size to filter out,” Marr told CNN. “It’s very likely that the virus is mostly in particles that are larger than that critical size, the test size.”
Essentially, the masks are put to a test more difficult than COVID-19, facing particles that are smaller than COVID-19. ASTM’s test reportedly scores masks’ ability to filter out particles measuring 0.3 microns. If a mask can stop even 20% of droplets that small, it’s a good sign that it can hold up to the virus.
But even though you can safely assume that a mask labeled as 50% effective is actually more effective than that, experts are hoping for even more detailed labeling in the future.
“I would like to see a level three on the higher end,” Milton said. “If you would have asked me this in November last year, I would have said this is OK. But now with the more transmissible variants [such as the South African variant], I’m more concerned. I think it’s a higher level of certification. I would like to see another level of performance like 80%.”
With these variants now spreading in the U.S., and the Biden administration taking steps to mandate mask wearing in public spaces like federal land and public transportation, the manufacture and purchase of masks will continue steadily.
And even though ASTM hasn’t yet worked out every detail, an industry standard takes away a lot of the guesswork left to the consumer and puts the onus on manufacturers to create a product that actually works.
“I think if these standards are out, there will be a demand for the highest level of protection that ASTM is willing to have a level for,” Marr said. “The manufacturers, I think, will step up and provide that.”
As we've seen in, say, sustainable products that clearly indicate their construction, country of origin and other details relevant to eco-conscious consumers, face mask certification will create an easy signifier for customers looking for products that do what they're intended to do when demand has never been higher.
The promo space has been flooded with face coverings, making things tricky for suppliers, distributors and end-buyers alike. The ASTM standard, if implemented, could clear things up—and would likely increase demand for products that achieve certification.