Do You Know what Masks to Use for Disasters, Pandemics, Allergies & Occupational Safety?

English: Respirator
English: Respirator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know the title of this article may seem a bit odd but I spent many hours researching because this is not a topic that is spoken about regularly and unfortunately people have been misinformed about the proper use of masks, correctly known as respirators.

Recent issues with mold and mycotoxins in the workplace and stories from friends whose husbands work in commercial contracting urged me to get the skinny on the world of respirators.
Now before I get into the descriptions pertaining to each type of respirator let me state that in no way am I endorsing or recommending any type or brand.  This article is made available to you because I am a mother, wife, and friend that hopes to raise awareness about things that otherwise go unnoticed and unspoken about.  It’s important to note that before using any respirator you discuss it with your medical professional as respirators worn for too long can cause harm as can respirators and masks that are worn incorrectly.

So what is a respirator?  According to Wikipedia:
“A respirator is a device designed to protect the wearer from inhaling harmful dust, fumes, vapors, or gases. Respirators come in a wide range of types and sizes used by the military, private industry, and the public. Respirators range from cheaper, single-use, disposable masks to reusable models with replaceable cartridges.

There are two main categories: the air-purifying respirator, which forces contaminated air through a filtering element, and the air-supplied respirator, in which an alternate supply of fresh air is delivered. Within each category, different techniques are employed to reduce or eliminate noxious airborne contents.”

I must note that respirator masks are not to be confused with regular surgical masks.  Surgical masks like those used by doctors and medical professionals are for the most part loose-fitting and porous and provide minimal protection against particles as small as fungi, viruses and other air contaminants.  However, in some cases, surgical isolation masks are highly recommended if there is a person/patient whose droplets from the nose and mouth can spread infectious particles.  At home, we always keep a box of isolation masks to use during flu season when sick kids and or guests come over coughing and or sneezing.  These masks are designed so no droplets go in or out of the mask.

When considering respirators you need to take into account the particle size that the respirator is aimed at filtering and or protecting you from.
In the United States, the entity that established a rating system for respirators is NIOSH.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act, signed by President Richard M. Nixon, on December 29, 1970, created both NIOSH and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). NIOSH was established to help ensure safe and healthful working conditions by providing research, information, education, and training in the field of occupational safety and health. NIOSH provides national and world leadership to prevent work-related illness, injury, disability, and death by gathering information, conducting scientific research, and translating the knowledge gained into products and services.

“Respirators that filter out at least 95% of airborne particles during “worse case” testing using a “most-penetrating” sized particle are given a 95 rating. Those that filter out at least 99% receive a “99” rating. And those that filter at least 99.97% (essentially 100%) receive a “100” rating.”

“Respirators in this family are rated as N, R, or P for protection against oils. This rating is important in industry because some industrial oils can degrade the filter performance so it doesn’t filter properly.* Respirators are rated “N,” if they are Not resistant to oil, “R” if somewhat Resistant to oil, and “P” if strongly resistant (oil Proof). Thus, there are nine types of disposable particulate respirators:”

  • N-95, N-99, and N-100
  • R-95, R-99, and R-100
  • P-95, P-99, and P-100

It’s also important to know that the size of contaminants and particles are usually described in microns, a metric unit of measure where one micron is one-millionth of a meter.

When I discussed this with a physician he said that this is especially important in people wanting to protect their lungs as smaller particles like mycotoxins produced by certain types of mold, can be absorbed into the deep lung and the alveoli where blood oxygen exchanges take place which can magnify the pathogen or hazard present and transfer them directly into the bloodstream.  Amazingly in the case of mycotoxins, research has shown animals to die from exposure and ingestion of feed containing mycotoxins like those produced by Aspergillus (a type of mold). Biotoxins can cause serious damage to human health.

Just so you have an idea of what we are talking about here; there are 25,400 microns in one inch, and the human eye can see particles larger than 10 microns.
Below is a chart that lists the approximate size of some contaminants and airborne particles.

Common Items and their respective particle sizes:

Postage Stamp, 1 inch high 25,400 microns
Eye of a Needle 1,230 microns
Human Hair 40 to 300 microns
Oil Smoke 0.03 to 1 micron
Fertilizer 10 to 1000 microns
Tobacco Smoke 0.01 to 1 microns
Coal Dust 1 to 100 microns
Mycotoxins (produced by some types of mold) < 1 microns
Mold Spores 3 to 30 microns
Pollens 10 to 1000 microns
Typical Atmospheric Dust 0.01      to 30 microns

Respirators can be used by many people for many different reasons.

Below are just a few.

People wanting protection from:
chemicals and VOCs
seasonal allergens
mold spores
oil fumes
particles let off by sanding, welding and cutting steel
paint fumes
aerosol sprays
toxic dust
the aftermath of natural or chemical disasters

Now for the detailed description of each type of respirator.

N-Series (N95, N99, and N100)
“N-Series particulate respirators are NOT resistant to oil and provide protection against solids and liquid aerosol particulates that do NOT contain oil. The difference between an N95, N99 and N100 respirators is simply the filter’s efficiency level. The higher the efficiency the more particulates the respirator will filter out.

N95 respirators are the most commonly used N-Series particulate respirators and are commonly used to protect wearers from particles or “dust” such as those from grinding, sanding, sweeping, sawing, bagging or processing minerals such as coal, iron ore, flour, metal, wood, and pollen. N95 respirators may also be used to filter against liquid or non-oil based particles from sprays that do NOT also admit oil aerosols or vapors. N-Series respirators have a non-specific service life and can be used as long the mask is not damaged or breathing resistances is not detected.

R-Series (R95)
R-Series particulate respirators are resistant to oil and provide protection against both solid and liquid aerosol particulates that may contain oil. R95 respirators are commonly used to protect wearers from particles or “dust” such as those from processing minerals such as coal, iron ore, flour, metal, wood, and pollen. R-series respirators are only certified for use for up to 8 hours of service life. R-Series particulate respirators are the least common type of particulate respirator due to the respirators specific service life.

P-Series (P100, P99, P95)
P-Series particulate respirators are similar to the R-series and provide protection against both solid and liquid aerosol particulates that may contain oil. However, P-Series respirators have a non-specific service life and can be used as long the mask is not damaged or breathing resistances is not detected.
P100 respirator masks are commonly referred to as HEPA filters or HEPA face masks.

Gas & Vapor Respirators
Gas & Vapor respirators are designed specifically to protect wearers against harmful gases and vapor and require the user to wear either a half-mask or full-mask respirator along with respirator cartridges. Gas and Vapor respirators do not protect wearers from particulates. For environments that contain both harmful particulates and gas and vapors, wearers must use combination respirators. Selection of the appropriate respirator cartridge will depend on the gas or vapor that is present. The most common respirator cartridge is typically an organic vapor cartridge. For more information on selecting the proper respirator cartridge for your application please see our respirator selection guide.

Combination Respirators
Combination respirator cartridges are designed to provide users with both vapor and particulate protection in a single cartridge. Combination respirators require the use of either a half-mask respirator or full-face respirator mask. Most respirator manufacturers including 3M respirators, North respirators, and MSA respirators all offer combination cartridges. When heavy particulate filtration is required, users may consider using a standard gas or vapor respirator cartridge along with a respirator pre-filter rather than a combination cartridge. This configuration will allow the wearer to replace the particulate filter as frequently as needed without having to also replace the gas and vapor cartridge. This configuration is commonly used in applications involving spray paint or pesticides.”

I know it may seem like a lot of information, but if you have a loved one that can benefit from this information then it is worth the time you spent reading this article.
Before I go, just one more bit of information that you might find helpful.  I learned this after observing my husband use his respirators.  It’s very important that the respirator fit well on your face to avoid open spaces that let in the contaminants, droplets or particles you are trying to avoid.

Click here
 for a detailed list of respirators you can use as a guide when shopping for the perfect one that suits your needs.

Click here for an online retailer where you can find all of the respirators discussed in the article.

May God bless you and yours!

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Cooper Safety Supply
Engineering Toolbox

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