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Surgical masks: health thresholds not exceeded for chemical contaminants

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News of 14/12/2021

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, surgical masks have been used daily by millions of people. Based on the investigations conducted by the DGCCRF, ANSES assessed the health risks associated with the presence of chemicals in surgical masks. The results showed no cases where health thresholds were exceeded, when the recommended conditions of use were followed.

Exploratory investigations

In response to the widespread everyday use of surgical masks since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the DGCCRF (Directorate General for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control) decided to conduct two sampling campaigns in 2020 and 2021. These campaigns involved several dozen references of surgical masks intended for the general public. The objective was to look for chemicals in these masks. ANSES was asked to assess the possible health risks associated with the inhalation of these substances or their contact with the skin.

Reassuring results in strict compliance with the conditions of use

The analyses conducted as part of these investigations revealed the presence of several chemicals: dioxins, furans, DL-PCBs (dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls), PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

The levels of exposure to the chemicals found in the masks did not exceed the health thresholds for either adults or children. These assessments were carried out in cases where wearers complied with the conditions of use recommended by the HCSP (French High Council for Public Health): a change of mask at least every four hours, masks worn the right way out, etc. "As long as wearers complied with the recommendations for use, the results were generally reassuring. Compliance with health thresholds guarantees the absence of health risks for the population if these substances are inhaled or come into contact with the skin," explains Céline Dubois, coordinator of the expert appraisal at ANSES.

Controlling the composition of surgical masks and sources of contamination

ANSES wished to go further in investigating the origin of these chemicals. The dioxins/furans/DL-PCBs found by the analyses do not seem to have been added intentionally by manufacturers. Their presence could result from contamination during the manufacturing process or from an external source. "One hypothesis could be the use of contaminated raw materials to manufacture the masks," says Céline Dubois. The precise source of the PAHs and VOCs could not be identified.

ANSES reminds manufacturers and the companies marketing these products of their responsibilities in checking the composition of surgical masks. "As the assessment was subject to time constraints, we were not able to study the release of substances emitted by the masks, only their composition," says Céline Dubois. The Agency therefore recommends that the manufacturers and the companies marketing the products assess any release of the chemicals or particles contained in these masks.  At the same time, it considers that manufacturers and the companies marketing the masks should take the necessary measures to control any sources of product contamination, particularly as regards the use of polypropylene (the main component of masks) if it is recycled.

The composition of the nose strips and ear loops, as well as the type of dye used, should be documented by manufacturers so that they can also be assessed. Finally, the presence of any known allergens in surgical masks should be clearly displayed on the packaging.

What are the different types of masks on the market?

  • Respiratory protection masks (FFP) are personal protective equipment (PPE). They comply with European health and safety requirements verified by standard NF EN 149 or by recognised equivalent standards in other countries;
  • Surgical masks are medical devices meeting European health and safety requirements verified by standard NF EN 14683;
  • Textile masks, also referred to as "general public" masks, were developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. These textile masks have guaranteed filtration, and are generally washable and reusable. They are reserved for use outside the health system. The production of these masks is governed by a memo issued by the French authorities on 29 March 2020, updated on 26 April 2020;
  • Textile masks manufactured by textile professionals or "home-made" in compliance with the AFNOR specification;
  • Home-made textile masks whose performance is neither regulated nor tested.