I have been independently studying the COVID-19 pandemic, since it first gained widespread attention.
COVID-19 is the name of a disease. It means coronavirus disease that emerged in year 2019.
SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus that causes this disease. It means severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.
Simple cloth face masks have become the popular recommendation for a barrier to help control the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.
Appearance Vs. Function
A popular argument seems to be circulating, and it goes something like this: In private businesses, No mask, no service is the same as No shirt, no shoes, no service. I have even seen a constitutional lawyer appeal to this argument, which I find utterly devoid of intellectual depth.
Shirts and shoes are garments, whose purpose is to cover the body for cultural reasons, as much as for shielding from environmental elements. There is hardly a technical expectation of proper use or proper functioning for wearing shirts and shoes. The premise behind wearing a face mask, on the other hand, is precisely technical – it goes farther than the surface appearance of a simple body covering. For a face mask to work, if it works at all, a person must use it correctly, in a stricter manner than when wearing shirts and shoes. The fundamental premise behind wearing a mask is based on proper use and proper care, which cannot be enforced by merely observing whether it covers a particular body part.
Many people, in fact, are not using face masks properly – I have witnessed this everyday. Improper use and lack of enforcing proper use have become so rampant that these masks are little more than the casual garments to which the constitutional lawyer so mistakenly compares them. Society, thus, has reduced the idea of a protective device to a superficial appearance that affords even less functionality than its minimum possible level.
No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service, then, is the same as No clue. In other words, rational minds cannot give any credibility to the false analogy that compares normal attire to invasive, restrictive, regimented, protective fabric, requiring even the most basic consistent, disciplined handling to be effective.
This is the practical failure of face masks – humans simply are not compliant enough in their proper use and care. The masks, thus, are exactly only that – masks, facades, symbols, fashion statements, signals of virtue in doing the right thing or showing the proper level of concern, serving as comfort objects, security blankets that make the wearers feel good.
The Practical Failure of Face Masks
What exactly are the failings in people wearing face masks? Here are some of the things that I have seen people do:
- wearing the mask below the nose
- taking a break from the mask, pulling it down around the neck
- touching the mask without washing hands before or afterwards
- storing the mask in a non-sanitized place
- manipulating the mask excessively while putting it on or taking it off
Generally, people seem to use their masks when they want, and often they are not even aware of their own normal touching and handling reflexes, while wearing masks. Based on the behaviors that I have observed, I also seriously doubt that most people attempting to use a mask are changing or refreshing their mask every two hours, which, in some cases, would require four masks for an eight-hour work day, five days a week.
To think that everyone could have the patience, time, determination, and discipline to treat masks seriously is unreasonable. Life is challenging enough without requiring yet another level of challenge to reduce its quality further.
Requiring people to present merely the appearance of using a mask properly, without requiring strict training and enforcement to insure that they do so, is a false requirement dependent upon nothing less than a belief in magic. Any such legal requirement, therefore, is nonsensical and out of touch with reality.
Remember, here we are talking about simple cloth face masks and simple steps to use them (which, in practice, turn out to be not so simple).
Porosity of Cloth Face Masks
The word, porosity, refers to pores or holes – it means the quality of an object or a material to have holes or pores in it. In this instance, we are talking about the quality of cloth fabric to have small spaces through which air can flow.
Cloth, as readers well know, consists of threads that cross over and intertwine with one another in a woven pattern to form a flat sheet of material. The weave of material appears solid to the naked eye, but, close up, under magnification, spaces appear between the woven threads, and it is through the spaces, between the woven threads, where air movement can occur. Air is like a flowing fluid, and any substance that air carries will also flow through these spaces, if the substance is small enough.
A technical article from 2010 by Danilo Jaksic and Nikola Jaksic states:
- Pores in the woven fabrics are voids between threads of the warp and weft and the light can go directly through. This sort of material is not suitable for use in the masks destined for protection against viruses. Viruses are extremely small and we can’t get pores in textiles to be smaller.
Danilo Jaksic and Nikola Jaksic (2010). Porosity of the Flat Textiles, Woven Fabric Engineering, Polona DobnikDubrovski (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-307-194-7, InTech.
This speaks directly to the kind of fabrics about which health authorities eventually changed their guidelines to recommend as suitable fabrics for face coverings, whereas earlier, these same health authorities had not recommended face coverings constructed of such fabrics.
The change in guidelines happened when a change in focus happened, from protecting the person behind the mask to protecting the person outside the mask.
What I have not seen experts evaluate, however, is the difference between air currents driven by pressure of breathing outward behind the mask and air currents driven by the vacuum of breathing inward through the mask. Air moves through fabric pores in both directions. How is it possible that these same pores restrict outward air flow sufficiently to halt exiting virus particles, while failing to restrict inward air flow sufficiently to halt entering virus particles? It seems that we are to believe that the physics of fluid flow works differently on one side of a woven fabric than it does on the other side of a woven fabric.
Again, we are talking about woven fabrics – fabrics that health authorities currently recommend as sufficient inhibitors of contagious particles, endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example.
In the thickest woven fabric that Jaksic and Jaksic examined (referred to as a “very thick monofilament woven fabric”), 90% of all pores were in the interval between 18 and 20 micrometers.
Now according to Abhiteja Konda, Abhinav Prakash, Gregory A. Moss, Michael Schmoldt, Gregory D. Grant, and Supratik Guha (2020). Aerosol Filtration Efficiency of Common Fabrics Used in Respiratory Cloth Mask, ACS Nano. https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c03252
- Although the detailed transmission specifics of SARS-CoV-2 virus are not well understood yet, droplets that are below 5 µm are considered the primary source of transmission in a respiratory infection, …
Note that 5 µm (5 micrometers) is about four times smaller than the smallest pore in the thickest woven fabric that Jaksic and Jaksic examined. This seems to confirm that the primary source of SARS-CoV-2 transmission (the virus that causes COVID-19), at five micrometers, could pass through the twenty-micrometer pores of a very thick woven fabric.
Even if some virus-laden particles collided with the fabric threads, instead of passing through the voids, we have to wonder just how many of the virus particles get through the mask. And we have to wonder what happens to those virus particles that hit the threads – what effect does further breathing have on further dispersing even those droplets or pushing them onward to join the next droplet that goes through a void?
Based on these numbers, then, it seems that a lot of people are placing their trust in a statistical miracle, as they ignore a detailed fluid dynamic analysis of exactly what happens to infectious droplets throughout an entire mask-wearing session, even when a simple mask is handled properly. I get the impression that we do not know this, and yet we attempt to regulate enforced mask wearing as if we do.
It also seems that a lot of people are trusting laboratory procedures restricted to fairly short time intervals, as if these lab conditions accurately represent real-life conditions, where fabrics are challenged for longer periods under less supervised conditions.
People who wear glasses and who try to wear a face mask are well aware of the flow of breath from the top of the mask that fogs their lenses. I personally know someone who works where wearing a mask has officially become mandatory, but who cannot see her computer screen to do her job because of fog on her glasses.
The mask requirement here, for this reason alone, is irrational. Pulling the mask below the nose solves this functional problem, of course, but it defeats one of the main purposes of proper use.
This example illustrates that exhaled air from breathing, coughing, or sneezing leaks through the top and sides of the mask at varying velocities, depending on the force of the exhalation.
Some homemade masks that I have seen people using are so narrow that space near the nose is considerable, meaning that the mask does little more than change direction of air flow.
Consider the following quote (referring to a surgical mask):
- While a mask can significantly reduce the velocity of the throughflow jet during expiratory events, the increased pressure in the region between the mask and the face pushes the face mask outwards, resulting in increased perimeter leakage. ... The leakage jets that issue from the perimeter can be turbulent and highly directed, potentially serving as effective dispersers of respiratory aerosols in transverse directions. Spasmodic expiratory events such as coughing and sneezing that generate high transient expulsion velocities will significantly diminish the outward protection effectiveness of face masks.
Rajat Mittal et al. (2020). The flow physics of COVID-19, Journal of Fluid Mechanics. DOI: 10.1017/jfm.2020.330
For simple cloth masks, in addition to the porosity of woven fabrics, side leakage seemingly would reduce mask effectiveness further.
Now consider images adapted from:
Tang, J. W., Liebner, T. J., Craven, B. A. & Settles, G. S. (2009) A Schlieren Optical Study of the Human Cough with and without Wearing Masks for Aerosol Infection Control. Journal of the Royal Society. Interface 6 (suppl_6), S727–S736. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rsif.2009.0295.focus
These images illustrate the side leakage phenomenon for masks of a higher grade than simple cloth masks that I have been discussing above.
Ambiguity Dressed Up In Technical Jargon
Generally, the Mittal et al. article seems as ambiguous as any other supportive article that I have read on the subject. It presents a lot of fluid dynamic terminology. It discusses relevant concepts and areas of potential future research, but it clearly does not apply any of this insight to prove the validity of current popular recommendations to wear simple cloth face masks.
The article continually expresses support for wearing face masks, in spite of seemingly problematic issues, suggesting that masks cannot do what the authors so readily support. In fact, this article clearly points to potential flaws in the entire practice.
One shortcoming of the article, in my judgment, is that it never discusses the repetitive process of breathing over a period of time in real work environments. It does not address questions such as:
- How do virus particles relocate throughout the duration of a mask-wearing session?
- What happens to virus particles, once they impact the inside of the mask – where do they go next?
- Does not the continuous action of breathing constantly push already exhaled virus particles through the mask, to the mask’s outside surface, poised to be ejected off the outside surface by the pressure of successive breaths?
In my assessment, therefore, the issue of side leakage, in combination with woven-cloth porosity and the failure or inability of people to follow even basic proper procedures on their own, make current recommendations about simple cloth masks absurd.
No practical foundation exists to support company or government rules to enforce mandatory wearing of such masks.
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Robert Kernodle on June 03, 2020:
James and Boomie,
My understanding is that masks do not have much effect on the quality of air we breathe. It would be interesting to find a study that measured this. In the meantime, that argument is weak, and I would avoid it as a valid objection.
Now the sensation of suffocation or the sensation of having your breath restricted might be a valid objection. There are people who are so claustrophobic that even covering their faces like this causes anxiety. For those people, a mask is a cruel requirement, given the lack of evidence supporting its effectiveness.
I am astounded by the ignorance I see in people's comprehension of proper use of masks, even if they did work.
Here, let me take you through the steps of one instance of improper use that I personally witnessed, only yesterday:
* food service person walks up to the table and delivers menus, wearing a mask BELOW HER NOSE
---- tiny droplets, of course, are exiting her nose and depositing on the front of the mask
* at one point, as she moves from table to table, she briefly pulls down her mask to scratch her nose, touching the mask, of course, to pull it up onto her face again
--- she touched her face with her hands that had been touching other things, and she touched her mask with the hands that have been touching other things, thus contaminating the mask that she has been breathing droplets on through her nose hanging over the mask
* She returns to the table to deliver plastic utensils and a napkin sealed in plastic, the PLASTIC of which, of course, she has just touched with her hands that scratched her nose, that touched her mask, contaminated from other things she has touched (in addition to droplets from her hanging-over nose).
* I touch the plastic that her hands touched, after touching her nose, contaminated mask from other stuff touched and droplets from hanging-over nose.
-- now my hands are contaminated, as I touch the plastic that I have to tear to remove the utensils, in order to use them. I am eating with contaminated plastic wear.
See? -- If we obsess on the reality, then we can find that the real chain of contamination in a real-life job is practically impossible to control in the way we are led to believe it is. Again, people just are NOT compliant in proper use, because they are not perceptive enough, conscious enough, or disciplined enough to do what it takes to really have even the smallest effect on this chain.
Boomie789 on June 02, 2020:
The mask restrict your oxygen intake. Makes people dizzy and slow. Cognitively handicapped.
Our body needs oxygen just like a fire or an engine. Less oxygen, less power.
James A Watkins from Chicago on June 02, 2020:
Thank you for this fine and needful article. It is not even healthy to breathe your own CO2. The Journal of the American Medical Association says: “Face masks should be used only by individuals who have symptoms of respiratory infection such as coughing, sneezing, or, in some cases, fever. Face masks should also be worn by healthcare workers, by individuals who are taking care of or are in close contact with people who have respiratory infections, or otherwise as directed by a doctor. Face masks should not be worn by healthy individuals to protect themselves from acquiring respiratory infection because there is no evidence to suggest that face masks worn by healthy individuals are effective in preventing people from becoming ill.”