There are several candidates for what could be taken as the symbol of the lack of critical thinking or even insanity in our era: the ever-changing Pride Flag and the COVID-19 vaccine being clear favorites. But face masks should really be always included at the top of the list. And the possibility that mask mandates could be making a comeback just ironically emphasizes the insanity even more.
The logic of face masks has been constantly elusive: between the fresh air of the open fields and breathing air within a used mask while standing in the middle of an open field, the choice should be obvious but in these deranged times isn’t. Joggers hurrying along in the track fully masked, people driving alone in their cars or joining an online meeting masked has got to be among the more surreal memetic emblems ever.
Even today, the wearing of face masks in public defies reason: the argument for it, remember, has morphed from its customarily understood function, i.e., to protect the wearer. However, when it was demonstrated that there is uncertainty regarding the face masks’ ability to actually keep out the COVID-19 virus, its use is now supposedly to prevent the wearer from infecting others.
Then there’s this: the wearing of face masks could actually be harmful.
A recent study (“Measuring the quantity of harmful volatile organic compounds inhaled through masks,” Rye, et.al., 2023, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10112860/), made the following observations:
“The number of VOCs detected above 100 µg m–3 concentration was clearly distinguished between the disposable masks (samples A and B) and multi-use masks (samples C, D, and E) (Table S4). DMAc was detected at relative high concentrations with 480 ± 440 µg m–3 in samples A2, B1, B2, and B3. In sample B2, DMF, which has an amide group like DMAc, a high concentration was also detected (208 µg m–3). We confirmed that amide compounds were emitted from most disposable mask samples. Among the multi-use masks, DMF was detected at a high concentration of 139 µg m–3 only in sample E2. In the case of toluene, relatively high concentrations of 155 µg m–3 (A2), 123 µg m–3 (B1), and 104 µg m–3(B2) were recorded only in the disposable mask samples. In contrast, toluene was not detected (or below 100 µg m–3) in the multi-use masks. High concentrations of carboxyl compounds (above 100 µg m–3) were detected only in the multi-use mask samples, and all were acetic acid. 2-nonaone with a ketone group was detected at a high concentration of 142 ± 16.0 µg m–3 only in sample B. In short, concentrations of individual VOCs generated from each mask differed based on mask type. We confirmed that VOCs with various functional groups were generated in relatively high concentrations in sample B, a KF94 mask.
“Fifteen species of the VOCs detected from mask samples were consistent with the hazardous chemicals commonly found in work environments, as identified by the United States’ National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) (Barsan, 2007) (Table 5). Among these 15 hazardous chemicals, DMAc and DMF are known to potentially cause liver and reproductive toxicity, and aromatic compounds such as toluene and xylene are toxic to the nervous system (Gong et al., 2016, Niaz et al., 2015, Saito et al., 2011, Wegner et al., 2021). Acetonitrile is also a harmful substance that can cause inflammation to the skin and eyes, and can cause neurological disorders (Ahmed et al., 1992, Hashimoto, 1991, Joshi and Adhikari, 2019).”
In other words, “tight-fitting mask may expose users to dangerous levels of toxic chemicals.”
Because what the study found is that “chemicals released by these masks had eight times the recommended safety limit of toxic volatile organic compounds (TVOCs). Inhaling TVOCs has been linked to health issues like headaches and nausea, while prolonged and repeated has been linked to organ damage and even cancer.” (“Mask study published by NIH suggests N95 COVID masks may expose wearers to dangerous level of toxic compounds linked to seizures and cancer”; Daily Mail, August 2023).
The foregoing, it must be emphasized, has to be read within the context of continuing uncertainty as to discernible benefits regarding the public wearing of face masks:
“There is uncertainty about the effects of face masks. The low to moderate certainty of evidence means our confidence in the effect estimate is limited, and that the true effect may be different from the observed estimate of the effect. The pooled results of RCTs did not show a clear reduction in respiratory viral infection with the use of medical/surgical masks. There were no clear differences between the use of medical/surgical masks compared with N95/P2 respirators in healthcare workers when used in routine care to reduce respiratory viral infection. Hand hygiene is likely to modestly reduce the burden of respiratory illness, and although this effect was also present when ILI and laboratory-confirmed influenza were analyzed separately, it was not found to be a significant difference for the latter two outcomes. Harms associated with physical interventions were under-investigated.” (“Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses”; Jefferson, et.al., January 2023, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6993921/).
Mask fanatics will be quick to point out and even censor the foregoing due to possible reactions by the usual “fact” checkers. One usual problem is the strawmen argumentation employed. No one is actually claiming that face masks are useless in all situations but that there is no categorically proven discernible benefit to a public mask mandate. Thus, the Jefferson review “doesn’t show that masks are useless but that the evidence from randomized controlled trials examined in the review shows no or no significant benefit” (“Posts mislead on study of mask effectiveness for COVID-19”; AFP Fact Check, March 2023).
And what the “fact” checkers can’t deny is that wide gamut of studies that question the very effectiveness — even safety — of public face mask wearing. To give examples:
“No additional effect was gained from mandating face masks, based on comparisons between the cities and between the age groups of the unvaccinated children (10-12 years versus seven to nine years)” (“Face mask recommendations in schools did not impact COVID-19 incidence among 10-12-year-olds in Finland — joinpoint regression analysis”; Juutinen, et.al., April 2023, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37085807/).
“There’s no avoiding it: The benefits of universal masking have been difficult to quantify. One controlled study in Bangladesh showed a small but statistically significant benefit — among people who consistently used masks, 7.6% got symptomatic infections compared to 8.6% in the control group” (“Mask mandates didn’t make much of a difference anyway,” Bloomberg, February 2022).
“Masks could accelerate disease spread in a much more striking manner … masks are repeatedly reused and infrequently washed, leading to the possibility that they are inadvertently serving as homemade disease cultures.” (“How Effective Are Cloth Face Masks?,” Cato Institute, 2021/2022, www.cato.org/regulation/winter-2021/2022/how-effective-are-cloth-face-masks)
To reiterate, people have been saying this from the beginning: “We know that wearing a mask outside healthcare facilities offers little, if any, protection from infection. Public health authorities define a significant exposure to COVID-19 as face-to-face contact within six feet with a patient with symptomatic COVID-19 that is sustained for at least a few minutes (and some say more than 10 minutes or even 30 minutes). The chance of catching COVID-19 from a passing interaction in a public space is therefore minimal. In many cases, the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic” (“Universal masking in hospitals in the COVID-19 era,” New England Journal of Medicine, May 2020, www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmp2006372).
Pharmaceutical and biotechnology expert Roger Koops (“Year of disguises,” AEIR, October 2020, www.aier.org/article/the-year-of-disguises/) asserts that whether you’re talking of a “surgical mask or N95 mask” such would generally have “no benefit in the general population and is only useful in controlled clinical settings. Further, it has been considered a greater transmission risk than a benefit in the general population.” The huge error of many people, according to Koops, is believing that masks are barriers. They are not. They are “filters.”
The ordinary masks available to the public are designed to filter specific things (and only those things) and are not usually 100% effective. They are designed for normal breathing and for short durations (hence not meant to be worn for hours). As pointed out by Koops, there is “only one type of mask, the surgical mask, which has shown any ability to reduce, not eliminate, virus transmission.” But — and here’s the crucial part — “the surgical mask is not intended for use outside of a controlled, sterile hospital surgical field where its use and function can be controlled. It has limitations.”
Public mask mandates at least do serve one clear visible function: they at least identify those in favor of it from those that don’t. And with all that it implies.
Jemy Gatdula is a senior fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence