As standard masks are used they collect exhaled airborne pathogens that remain living in the masks’ fibers, rendering them infectious when handled

Surgical-style facial masks harbor a secret—viruses that could be infectious to the people wearing them. However, masks can become effective virus killers as well. At least that’s what researchers at the University of Alberta (UAlberta) in Edmonton, Canada, have concluded.

If true, such a re-engineered mask could protect clinical laboratory workers from exposure to infectious diseases, such as, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), and Swine Influenza.

“Surgical masks were originally designed to protect the wearer from infectious droplets in clinical settings, but it doesn’t help much to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases such as SARS or MERS or influenza,” Hyo-Jick Choi, PhD, Assistant Professor in UAlberta’s Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, noted in a press release.

So, Choi developed a mask that effectively traps and kills airborne viruses.

Clinical Laboratory Technicians at Risk from Deadly Infectious Diseases

The global outbreak of SARS in 2003 is a jarring reminder of how infectious diseases impact clinical laboratories, healthcare workers, and patients. To prevent spreading the disease, Canadian-based physicians visited with patients in hotel rooms to keep the virus from reaching their medical offices, medical laboratory couriers were turned away from many doctors’ offices, and hospitals in Toronto ceased elective surgery and non-urgent services, reported The Dark ReportDark Daily’s sister publication. (See The Dark Report, “SARS Challenges Met with New Technology,” April 14, 2003.)

UAlberta materials engineering professor Hyo-Jick Choi, PhD, (right) and graduate student Ilaria Rubino (left) examine filters treated with a salt solution that kills viruses. Choi and his research team have devised a way to improve the filters in surgical masks, so they can trap and kill airborne pathogens. Clinical laboratory workers will especially benefit from this protection. (Photo and caption copyright: University of Alberta.)

How Current Masks Spread Disease

How do current masks spread infectious disease? According to UAlberta researchers:

  • A cough or a sneeze transmits airborne pathogens such as influenza in aerosolized droplets;
  • Virus-laden droplets can be trapped by the mask;
  • The virus remains infectious and trapped in the mask; and,
  • Risk of spreading the infection persists as the mask is worn and handled.

“Aerosolized pathogens are a leading cause of respiratory infection and transmission. Currently used protective measures pose potential risk of primary and secondary infection and transmission,” the researchers noted in their paper, published in Scientific Reports.

That’s because today’s loose-fitting masks were designed primarily to protect healthcare workers against large respiratory particles and droplets. They were not designed to protect against infectious aerosolized particles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In fact, the CDC informed the public that masks they wore during 2009’s H1N1 influenza virus outbreak provided no assurance of infection protection.

“Face masks help stop droplets from being spread by the person wearing them. They also keep splashes or sprays from reaching the mouth and nose of the person wearing the face mask. They are not designed to protect against breathing in very small particle aerosols that may contain viruses,” a CDC statement noted.

Pass the Salt: A New Mask to Kill Viruses

Choi and his team took on the challenge of transforming the filters found on many common protective masks. They applied a coating of salt that, upon exposure to virus aerosols, recrystallizes and destroys pathogens, Engineering360 reported.

“Here we report the development of a universal, reusable virus deactivation system by functionalization of the main fibrous filtration unit of surgical mask with sodium chloride salt,” the researchers penned in Scientific Reports.

The researchers exposed their altered mask to the influenza virus. It proved effective at higher filtration compared to conventional masks, explained Contagion Live. In addition, viruses that came into contact with the salt-coated fibers had more rapid infectivity loss than untreated masks.

How Does it Work?

Here’s how the masks work, according to the researchers:

  • Aerosol droplets carrying the influenza virus contact the treated filter;
  • The droplet absorbs salt on the filter;
  • The virus is exposed to increasing concentration of salt; and,
  • The virus is damaged when salt crystallizes.

“Salt-coated filters proved highly effective in deactivating influenza viruses regardless of [influenza] subtypes,” the researchers wrote in Scientific Reports. “We believe that [a] salt-recrystallization-based virus deactivation system can contribute to global health by providing a more reliable means of preventing transmission and infection of pandemic or epidemic diseases and bioterrorism.”

Other Reports on Dangerous Exposure for Clinical Laboratory Workers

This is not the first time Dark Daily has reported on dangers to clinical laboratory technicians and ways to keep them safe.

In “Health of Pathology Laboratory Technicians at Risk from Common Solvents like Xylene and Toluene,” we reported on a 2011 study that determined medical laboratory technicians who handle common solvents were at greater risk of developing auto-immune connective tissue diseases.

And more recently, in “Europe Implements New Anatomic Pathology Guidelines to Reduce Nurse Exposure to Formaldehyde and Other Toxic Histology Chemicals,” we shared information on new approaches to protect nurses from contacting toxic chemicals, such as formalin, toluene, and xylene.

The UAlberta team may have come up with an inexpensive, simple, and effective way to protect healthcare workers and clinical laboratory technicians. Phlebotomists, laboratory couriers, and medical technologists also could wear the masks as protection from accidental infection and contact with specimens. It will be interesting to follow the progress of this special mask with its salty filter.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Researcher Turns “SARS Mask” into a Virus Killer

Universal Reusable Virus Deactivation System for Respiratory Protection

Understanding Respiratory Protection Options in Healthcare

H1N1 Flu and Masks

Arming Surgical Masks to Kill Viruses

New Surgical Mask Designed to Kill Viruses

SARS Challenges Met with New Technology

Toronto Hospital Labs Cope with SARS Impact

Europe Implements New Anatomic Pathology Guidelines to Reduce Nurse Exposure to Formaldehyde and Other Toxic Histology Chemicals

Health of Laboratory Technicians at Risk from Common Solvents Like Xylene and Toluene