Clarity on Pollution & Coronavirus #2 | We tested protective masks effectiveness… and you can too!

As the world continues to live with COVID-19 intertwined into our daily lives, we are adapting to the new normal of social distancing and remote work. With the easing of shelter-in-place rules, folks are now looking at the possibility of returning to work and school, meeting friends, and in the U.S., exercising the right to assemble in public places. Amidst these re-openings, the proper use of masks has been shared by experts as one of the most effective ways to limit COVID-19 exposure.

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Paolo (right) with his father (left) in Monument Valley.

This is our CTO, Paolo Micalizzi (right). Hailing from the picturesque town of Varese in northern Italy, Paolo’s father (left) runs a dental practice where he takes care of a good number of people’s dental health in Varese. When Italy was suddenly hit with the influx of coronavirus cases earlier in the year, he was forced to temporarily close his practice.

As an essential business, he eventually had to open his practice to respond to patients with dental emergencies. Given the shortage of masks that followed the lockdown, he was concerned with his office being a hotspot for infection without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for himself and his patients. Being a dental office, he also had to ensure that the protective equipment is able to block aerosols from respiration and water droplets from the dental work.

When Paolo shared his father’s situation with us, this presented a new unknown that we at Clarity were eager to accept as a challenge. Clarity was founded in 2014 as a response to a problem — filling in the data gaps in traditional air quality monitoring. We immediately began throwing ideas around for alternative solutions when N95 masks and face shields were not available. The idea of going back to our tinkering roots and helping Paolo’s father and essential health workers everywhere aligned with the core of why we do what we do — to help people.

Then it hit us. We had the space, the sensors, the curiosity, to run an experiment testing different PPEs, why don’t we just do it?

And so we did. Taking matters into our own hands, we took over one of our testing spaces to set up a makeshift experiment on the effectiveness of alternative PPE solutions. We bought a mannequin head, supplies off of Amazon, and got to work. Now, we’re doing the next best thing — sharing it with the rest of the world.

Whether you’re looking to purchase a mask, researching DIY protective gear, or a tinkerer and data nerd like us, read on to see how we set up the experiment and our results.

The set-up

Our CTO Paolo Micalizzi walks us through an overview of our experiment and testing set up.
DIY Toolkit

Download photos and files to build your own Scuba+HEPA filter mask ☞ https://bit.ly/3hPQZH1

Products Mentioned

Scuba facemask ☞ https://amzn.to/2BtwDT9
HEPA Filter ☞ https://amzn.to/2YpAHgn

The Results

Disclaimer: Clarity is not an expert in infectious disease and public health. This experiment is a passion project initiated by a group of engineers with experience in air quality monitoring. We highly recommend checking guidelines from vetted experts like the CDC and WHO for guidelines on how to protect you and your community from disease spread.

1. No mask

We blew aerosols at the mannequin head with no protective gear as a control. We saw an immediate spike in aerosols upon contact.

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Results with no mask: The spike occurs after the Arizona Road Dust was sprayed
2. Surgical Mask

The surgical mask surprisingly showed just as high, if not more, of a spike in aerosol concentration as not wearing a mask in our experiment. This could be due to experimental errors or address the question if the mask protects the wearer or others. In recent studies, it has been shown that surgical masks are “are designed to protect people from the wearer”. As our experiment focused on the blowing aerosols at the wearer, the spike may indicate the varying directional effectiveness of different masks.

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Results with a surgical mask: The spike occurs after the Arizona Road Dust was sprayed
3. N95 Mask

The N95 mask was the most effective of the 4 masks we tried, protecting the user from oncoming aerosols. It also showed that wearing masks can not completely protect the user, only lower the risk of transmission. Since we are blowing aerosols directly into the face, some particles that are still able to travel past the mask.

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Results with an N95 Mask: The spike occurs after the Arizona Road Dust was sprayed
4. FFP2 Mask

The FFP2 was not as effective as the N95 mask, but more effective than the surgical mask.

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Results with an FFP2 Mask: The spike occurs after the Arizona Road Dust was sprayed
5. Scuba mask + HEPA Filter

The self-made Scuba mask and HEPA filter faired quite well compared to the other masks, performing only behind the N95 mask. Given that the much sought-after N95 mask is in a supply shortage, our proposed scuba mask and HEPA filter solution may work quite well for essential workers (especially health workers in high transmission places) without access to an N95 mask and face shield.

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Results with a DIY Scuba mask + HEPA filter: The spike occurs after the Arizona Road Dust was sprayed

Takeaways

While we’re not experts in infectious disease, we hope that this experiment inspires you to take part in flattening the curve and find ways to prevent transmission. The lack of N95 masks should not deter us from doing our part in protecting others and ourselves from the spread of disease.

Thank you to all first responders, medical personnel, and scientists working at the forefront of disease prevention and treatment! We owe so much of our wellbeing to your selfless and tireless contribution — please wear masks in public to do our part in helping curb transmission. We’ve included a few links below to additional reading for those interested in more in-depth evidence and research on the effectiveness and proper use of masks.

We are also happy to report that we shipped our Scuba/HEPA contraption to Paolo’s father after this experiment and he was able to resume essential services at his dental practice!

Additional reading on mask effectiveness from official and academic sources:

Disclaimer: Clarity is not an expert in infectious disease and public health. This experiment is a passion project initiated by a group of engineers with experience in air quality monitoring. We highly recommend checking guidelines from vetted experts like the CDC and WHO for guidelines on how to protect you and your community from disease spread.

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