Bird Flu Concerns Make Masks Hot Commodity

As concerns over a bird flu epidemic surge, some people are seeking reassurance by getting prepared with cover -- face coverage.

Manufacturers and distributors of the so-called nanomask say that with every report of bird flu concerns, sales spike. The masks, specifically designed to keep out biological hazards, including the bird flu virus, started selling swiftly following the comments last week of U.N. health chief David Nabarro who said that a mutation of the virus affecting Asia could trigger new, widespread outbreaks.

And with every new report about the virus, people buy more masks.

"We currently are attempting to produce between 100,000 and 200,000 masks a week," said Doug Beplate, founder and president of Emergency Filtration Products, based in Henderson, Nev. "Now they're going out as soon as we make them. I don't see us catching up to the demand in the near future."

Better Than n95 Standard?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that health care workers who handle contagious patients, including those infected by SARS and the avian flu, wear masks that meet the n95 rating under the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. This means that the respirators filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles during testing using a "most-penetrating" sized particle of 0.3 microns.

"Research indicates that n95 respirators provides higher protection than a standard surgical mask," said Roland Berry Ann, acting program manager for respiratory protection at NIOSH. "The fit of the mask is also very important. Workers have to keep in mind if you can breathe around the mask, then the filter isn't going to help."

Beplate claims his masks do better thanks to a coating that reacts to contaminants at the mask surface. He says that electric charges within the nanoparticle coating and among a contaminant react, rendering the contaminant inactive.

"It works kind of like a magnet," Beplate said, but declined to go into further detail, citing copyright concerns.

Beplate has not submitted his masks for CDC or NIOSH ratings because he wants to maintain intellectual privacy but he says an independent laboratory, Nelson Laboratories in Salt Lake City, has tested the product and found it is 99.99 percent effective at filtering particles as small as 0.027 microns. The laboratory is registered under the Food and Drug Administration.

The masks sell for about $9 each, plus $9.49 for a pack of 10 replacement filters.

NIOSH's Berry Ann confirms his laboratory has not received any samples of the mask for testing and approval, but he and his co-workers are aware of the technology and are researching it.

Clean Hands, Clear Health

No matter how well a mask works, however, health care workers stress that the most important protection against infection is personal vigilance.

"Masks may offer people a security blanket," said Michael Zimring, director of the Wilderness and Travel Medicine Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and co-author of the book "Healthy Travel." "But just putting on a mask isn't going to do it. You have to do everything else, too. Keep your hands clean, stay hydrated and get enough rest."

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