Tennessee Suspends Distribution of $8.2M in Face Masks That May Contain Harmful Material
Update 6/9: After review, the EPA said the masks are safe to use. (View full coverage here.) Original article continues below.
In May, the Tennessee state government announced that it would spend $8.2 million on cloth face masks to distribute to residents. That alone raised a few eyebrows, as the Chattanoga Times Free Press announced that it was a no-bid deal awarded to North Carolina-based sock company Renfro Corporation.
About a month later, eyebrows are still raised, as it came to light that the face masks, branded with a small "TN" in the upper front corner, are now being recalled and production halted due to the materials’ antimicrobial properties.
The Hamilton County Health Department is suspending distribution of the cloth face masks that were distributed throughout the state by the Governor’s Unified Command Group. Details: https://t.co/bH7NdodmcL pic.twitter.com/8nWSVRUPdp
— Hamilton County Health Department - Tennessee (@HamiltonHealth) May 30, 2020
Knox News reported that the masks were treated with a silver-based antimicrobial product called Silvadur that the EPA regulates as a pesticide. Silvadur, which is produced by DuPont, can be used on fabrics at safe levels, but it’s unclear what those levels would be for face masks, or if the products intended for wide distribution in Tennessee meet those guidelines. It’s mostly used to eliminate odor on textiles and garments, so it makes sense that a sock manufacturer has been using it.
“In general, [silver particles] act like a double-edged sword with beneficial and harmful effects,” a team of scientists wrote in the International Journal of Molecular Science, according to Knox News.
Health experts reportedly said that exposure to these silver particles should be “extremely low,” and since there is no information about whether or not the sock masks meet those guidelines, the Tennessee government is operating under an abundance of caution.
News 9 in Tennessee reported that the state’s health department has asked people to stop using the masks until officials get more information about possible risks associated with Silvadur. The state will stop distributing them pending the review.
But, it’s a costly error. The state government was already receiving flack for spending $8.2 million on masks that, even setting aside the chemical concern, appear to be made with flimsy construction and limited protection against pathogens.
Here’s Tenn. State Rep. Gloria Johnson:
Folks are picking up Gov Lee’s masks from the health dept. Package says not for medical use. A friend picked 1 up and said it looks like somebody cut a sock in half it’s very porous and I can see through it. It’s like trying to keep chipmunks out of your garden with chicken wire. pic.twitter.com/0VZnfc9X6f
— Rep. Gloria Johnson (@VoteGloriaJ) May 6, 2020
Here’s State Rep. John Ray Clemmons:
Curious to hear from medical professionals about potential effectiveness of this “mask.” Also would like to know whether #TN taxpayers actually paid for 5M of these porous face socks and if so, to which vendor. #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/d2gFNsoZaU
— John Ray Clemmons (@JRClemmons) May 6, 2020
As we discussed before, the N95 masks used by health care professionals are the most effective at protecting people from airborne particles that spread disease like COVID-19. But, those masks should be reserved for health care professionals who treat people and come into contact with the disease on a regular basis.
For the average citizen who has been staying home consistently and comes into contact with others while picking up dinner or going to the grocery store, a cloth mask can be highly effective, especially when they are widely used.
The issue with Tennessee’s mask isn’t so much its porous construction. That obviously isn’t ideal, but in this case health experts have been largely unanimous in that something is better than nothing when it comes to covering your face. The issue here is the use of the antimicrobial and anti-odor material that could be harmful to people.
And in this very specific case, it might totally be fine, but the unknown is not worth the risk. Tennessee is doing the right thing by stopping production until officials figure out exactly how much of the material is used on the face masks and whether or not it poses any risk to its citizens.
In a statement to news outlets, Renfro senior media strategist Tom Donda pointed out that Silvadur has been used in products that make regular contact with the face, like pillow cases, sheets, jackets, shirts, towels and more. So, it’s at least safe in appropriate amounts. The question still remains whether Renfro did its due diligence and made sure the the masks met those guidelines.