Coronavirus: reusable face masks to ease UAE eco concerns

Focus shifts to re-usable and biodegradable masks as demand for protection continues to climb

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, May 19, 2020.  Mall visitors are thermal scanned at the entrace on the first day of the reopening of the Mushrif Mall, Abu Dhabi.  
Victor Besa  / The National
Section:  NA
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An eco-friendly business has developed a sustainable production line of reusable face masks to help protect the planet while guarding against Covid-19.

About 8,000 “Fine Guard” masks are produced in the UAE every day, with most selling out online in hours.

Made from LivinGuard technology, the masks are proven to kill 99 per cent of viruses, including Covid-19, for up to a year.

They are also washable so manufacturers claim the masks are ideal for exercising to ensure runners and cyclists abide by government guidelines when outdoors.

The reusable masks also aim to reduce environmental fears over a waste mountain created by dumped face masks.

Roy Cooper / The National
Roy Cooper / The National

“We decided to make reusable masks in January which are environmentally friendly,” said James Michael Lafferty, chief executive of Fine Hygienic Holding the company producing the masks.

“A lot of research had already been done to show this technology would kill 99 per cent of viruses and bacteria.”

Extensive research has been done by the University of Arizona to prove the materials used effectively neutralises pathogens of all kinds on contact.

“It was tested on many viruses, including the nearest to Covid-19 - the 229E coronavirus,” said Mr Lafferty.

“Now we have proof this is an added layer of protection than you would get from an N95 mask.

“We have back orders of more than a million masks and regularly take calls from governments asking for more.”

The anti-viral masks are already available across MENA, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan - where 20,000 masks are produced every day.

Masks can be washed with soap and water up to 30 times and are effective for about two years.

A ventilation valve makes them ideal to exercise in.

“It is hard to exercise with an N95 mask as it is difficult to pull air through the filtration sack,” said Mr Lafferty.

“LivinGuard is a much more porous fabric and is easier to breathe in while running.

“When I go running in Dubai I see a lot of paper masks and gloves blowing creating a huge amount of pollution. This is a solution.”

Although government advice and the latest information from the US Centers for Disease Control is to wear face coverings when outside at all times, exercising in a mask can pose health risks.

“It is very difficult to safely run while wearing an N95 respiratory mask as the demand of oxygen and ventilation is much greater during exercise,” said Dr Mohamed Rafique, a pulmonologist and medical director at Prime Hospital in Garhoud, Dubai.

“There is likely to be shortness of breath and with the dead space inside the mask there will be a gradual build up of carbon dioxide.”

Most hospitals will only use an N95 or respirator masks with an exhalation port and one way valve to reduce the heat and humidity inside the face covering.

Typically, most surgical masks contain three layers: a mix of non-woven fabric and a middle plastic layer that acts as a filter.

Deepinder Singh Chhatwal, head of quality and performance management at Al Zahra Hospital, Sharjah, said all staff inside the hospital wear surgical masks at all times.

“The most important aspect that we teach all staff is to wear their masks appropriately as a loose hanging mask does not offer much protection,” he said.

“N95 respirators come in various sizes and should be selected based on how it fits the user's face in order to create a tight seal, but they are not available in a wide variety of sizes.”

As governments rush to stockpile masks, gloves, visors and gowns to protect health workers, environmentalists fear the rapid increase in single use plastic could be catastrophic.

Masks dumped at sea and later ingested by sea turtles or dolphins who confuse them with jellyfish could prove fatal, as the plastics get stuck in the animal’s digestive system.

Most masks contain polypropylene, which does not break down quickly.

About eight million tonnes of plastic is estimated to be dumped in our oceans each year, with around 100,000 marine mammals suffering the fatal consequences.

A further solution is being developed by engineers at New York University Abu Dhabi who have developed a 3D printed greener alternative.

Made from a tough, biodegradable material called polylactic acid the mask can be reused and recycled to reduce waste.

“I think it is the responsibility of people to step in and do what they can,” said Anthony Tzes, a Greek engineering professor, who suspended other projects at NYUAD to focus on developing reusable masks.

“The mask is environmentally friendly and will not cause itching or irritation.

“Let’s hope this ends soon but in the meantime, we must work together to find solutions.”