New research shows that most face masks contain low levels of PKAS

Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Most face masks contain safe levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PKAS), a substance added to products to repel liquid, according to a new study. However, face masks commonly used by firefighters were shown to have potentially harmful levels of PKAS.

The study, published in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, and led by Ivan Titaley, PhD, researcher at Oregon State University. According to the study’s authors, face masks have gained popularity due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and some masks are treated with PKAS. Referring to prior animal studies, researchers began the study by estimating the amount of PKAS in masks that when used frequently, could result in health problems. The study then analyzed nine face masks in various price ranges measuring levels of total fluorine as well as nonvolatile and volatile PFAS using mass spectrometry. The face masks included surgical and N95 masks, six cloth reusable face masks, and a heat-resistant fabric mask marketed towards firefighters.

The study found that surgical masks, N95 masks, and cloth masks had only a small amount of PFAS that did not pose health risks. The heat-resistant firefighter masks did however show significant levels of PFAS that could result in health problems when worn for 10 hours a day during high levels of activity. Researchers also measured the environmental consequences of PFAS from surgical and N95 face masks. The scientists found PFAS levels in the face masks had little effect on PFAS levels in landfills and domestic water even when thrown away in high quantities.

According to researchers, PFAS levels in masks are generally safe and should not discourage the public from wearing masks and protecting themselves against COVID-19 and environmental pollutants. This study, researchers said, can help people choose masks with lower PFAS levels and encourage mask manufacturers to be more mindful of which chemicals they’re including in their masks.