Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Public Service Notice on the N1H1 Influenza Virus for People Who Are Thinking of Buying a Mask…

This essay by Patrick Smith, one of my favorite writers, brings a welcome perspective to the issue. If only our political leaders could speak with this degree of sanity.

To American conservatives: Yes, it’s Salon, but that doesn’t mean Smith doesn’t make sense.

12 comments:

Janne Morén said...

Any normal paper mask does absolutely nothing to protect you from a virus. You might as well try to repel them with an angry glare. Masks capable of stopping viruses do apparently exist, by the way; they are too expensive and specialized to be sold in convenience stores, they require instruction in their use or they won't help, they're apparently very uncomfortable, and they wear out and need to be replaced regularly.

And if you happen to be blessed with a stylish full beard or other facial hair (like me) you're a goner no matter what mask you use. In the army we had a gas mask exercise - the real, full-face thing with glass "windows" on the eyes and a big filter canister hanging off one side. We'd don our gas masks and go into a room filled with tear gas, the idea being, I think, that nothing beats learning by experience. What I learned - and the lieutenant apparently knew full well - is that no matter how hard you try, a mask will not seal tightly against a bearded face. Oh, I also learned that rinsing off tear gas with water really doesn't work and in fact makes the pain worse.

But paper masks are not useless. They do protect the environment from the wearer's viruses to some extent. Sneeze or cough droplets that would have spread all over the room stay mostly in the mask. So if you may have been infected (including a normal, simple influenza virus that, don't forget, kills half a million people every year) slipping on a mask is certainly a decent thing to do.

Jun Okumura said...

…or other facial hair (like me)…Like what, nose hair? Seriously, this is the best first-person account on face masks that I’ve read.

Your point about preventing the dissemination of your own viruses is well taken, but I have to say that anyone with a fever who is sneezing and coughing shouldn’t be out and about in the first place.

Janne Morén said...

Your point about preventing the dissemination of your own viruses is well taken, but I have to say that anyone with a fever who is sneezing and coughing shouldn’t be out and about in the first place.Of course. But you're often infectious during the last stage of incubation as well; you don't feel sick, but every breath, cough, harrumph and so on carries virus-laden droplets out into the air.

I also suspect that the face mask is an excellent anti-panic device. People will often tend to overreact to fairly remote dangers. We're in no danger of swine flu here yet, and so far it looks like a fairly mild strain (what happens next winter is a different question). But worried people that would otherwise have overreacted - stay home from work, avoid going out - can don a mask and feel a little better since they've been able to do something about their fear.

Martin J Frid said...

Hum, Patrick Smith says nothing about masks, so the title of your post is a little misleading.

Let's be clear about face masks - like Janne notes, the thin ones are virtually useless. On the other hand, the "respiratory masks" are carefully designed to not let tiny particles (and that should include virus) through. 3 M has several that should be very effective, and there are others. The industry standard for antiviral masks is called N95...

Jun Okumura said...

My bad, Martin. I was using the mask as the most obvious symbol of public overreaction to what was a minimal rise in the overall risk of disease, and using that in turn as a hook to encourage people to read Patrick Smith. (How many people can write entertainingly about air quality in passenger planes without forcing jokes?) I should have made my intent clearer. After all, that’s one of the qualities that I find so attractive in Smith’s prose. And thank you guys, both of you, for the information on masks. I’ll try to remember it when the risk becomes so high that wearing a mask will be a meaningful precaution.

Janne: your point about the mask as security blanket of sorts is a fascinating point that mostly (always?) goes unnoticed. You should look for more such examples and write the whole thing up in a blog post of your own or an op-ed for a wider forum.

Janne Morén said...

You should look for more such examples and write the whole thing up in a blog post of your own or an op-ed for a wider forum.I could do that, but I'm a bit gun-shy to tell the truth. When a subject is anywhere close to professional area of expertise, my bloviating risks being mistaken for an actual informed opinion.

It's happened to me once that I expressed an opinion in a private capacity (and thought I'd been perfectly clear on that), but some people took my statements as the real state of science in that particular area and even some sort of "official line" on the subject.

Any subject that risks confusion as to who is writing it (Dr. Moren or "Janne the opinionated drunk at the corner table") I want to be really sure I have good sources and solid data, or I had better just not write about it at all.

Which really is kind of backwards of course: the less I know about something the more free I feel to write about it.

LB said...

Personally, I wear a mask on a plane (and did so long before anyone had heard of H1N1) strictly for the comfort of my sinus passages. The mask traps the moisture I exhale, and humidifies the air I inhale. It also makes the air just a tiny bit warmer, which considering how dry and cold the air is inside an airliner is something my nose and throat greatly appreciate.

As for convenience-store masks stopping viruses, yes, as Janne states they won't filter out the viruses themselves. Viruses and germs are very tiny little buggers, and nothing short of a dedicated anti-biological weapons filter in a full-face mask will protect you (and even then, depending on the filter and agent, it may only protect you if you happen to be on the moon). However, that said, when someone sneezes or coughs and launches whatever they have into the atmosphere, those bugs are stuck in the droplets of their mucus or phlegm - and a mask will stop those. You still need to think about your eyes, though - a mucous membrane is a mucous membrane - and remember to wash or disinfect your hands before touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Jun Okumura said...

“[T]he less I know about something the more free I feel to write about it.”Janne: How did you know why I blog?

LB: The mask as a moisture retention device on airplanes is one I never thought about (perhaps because I have a problem with any physical restraint above my neck). You want to try taking liberal quantities of water; sooner or later, it reaches my eyes and sinuses. (If you have problems ingesting enough water, alcohol is a very effective additive to make it go down. It’s never failed me.)

LB said...

Okumura-san - I drink lots of water too. And alcohol has its benefits, however alcohol is also a diuretic and makes the dehydration problem worse, not better.

And an aside to Janne - you think dealing with CS when your mask won't seal because of your beard is bad, try it first thing in the morning after having just shaved. And just in case you get up to trouble in the future, I have heard that washing with a baking-soda solution (not plain water) is much more effective and eliminates the "burn".

Jun Okumura said...

LB: I agree with you about the diuretic effect. I do consume a lot of water (and tomato juice) as well why I fly.

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