I find it quite interesting that so many manufacturers of surgical face masks are claiming … I mean complaining that they are short on raw materials. To argue against my suggestion of deploying our NS boys to make instead of pack masks, a friend who is in academia shared a post carrying interviews with Malaysian manufacturers/suppliers. Another shared a report from Vietnam. One Vietnamese manufacturer mentioned something about not having enough “antibacterial filter and carbon”. I wonder what kind of “surgical masks” he was talking about.
As we depend more and more on the internet of things, many people lose touch with what’s going on in real life. Take a good look at the marketplaces. Where are things being shipped out and where are they headed? Whether it’s the mainstream media or the alternative media, people who have been interviewed may not have told you the truth. As these Vietnamese and Malaysian bosses speak, millions of pieces of surgical masks are being shipped out of China through the black market. Not everybody has a conscience and it’s extremely profitable to hoard and sell to the desperate who are willing to pay a lot more. Shortage of raw materials? Why don’t I buy that? Well, let’s check out all the readily available materials that make up a surgical mask.
There’s a plethora of designs out there. Surgical face masks with every imaginable shape and form have already been invented. There are few serious studies out there, but every manufacturer of branded and unusual masks would claim that his is better than the rest.
Of course, there are masks that just cannot make it. Poor design, inferior materials, manufacturing defects. There are also those gorgeously packed with marketing frills and gimmicks – most of which are not necessary for the Wuhan coronavirus crisis at hand.
So what are the essential components of a most basic surgical mask? Since masks are very valuable at this moment, I shall not dissect one. Suffice to say that a standard 3-ply ($10/box usual doctor’s price) mask is made from the following materials.
Recognise this? Yes, it’s a piece of wet tissue that has been dried. The makers of disposable surgical items use very similar materials for all their products which may include absorbent pads, gowns, caps, wraps, bags etc. The least critical layer for the surgical mask is the innermost layer that is in contact with the face. It may depend on the design, this is often the absorbent layer. It could be the fabric you see above, a piece of absorbent paper or just thick tissue paper. Have we run out of that?
Next, we have the filtration layer. This is the most variable layer. Some manufacturers use a very thin layer of the “fabric” above, claiming superior bacterial filtration. Does it look familiar? Yes, it’s the same spongy stuff that you find in your kitchen’s cooking hood.
Some manufacturers use something that resembles asbestos fibre. Can it really filter off bacteria? I doubt so, but that’s not too important. Some manufacturers state that this layer is water-resistant. A few brands I’ve checked use a cloth-like material that is as wettable as the the innermost layer.
The outermost layer is usually made from the same material used for disposable coffee bags. Surgical mask manufacturers like to use the term “non-woven”. Some claim that their outermost layer is non-woven. Some say that all three layers are non-woven. What does that mean? Well, non-woven is just a sophisticated way of saying “synthetic”. The material is usually polypropylene and the fibres are not woven or knitted together. They are bonded using heat or chemicals.
These material are very strong. They don’t tear easily and they do get wet but not soaked. I’ve even encountered some surgical masks that have this coffee bag layer on the inside as well.
Non-woven aka synthetic, also means that these materials can be produced in a beaker in the lab using a few chemicals. You don’t need to wait for plants to grow and flower.
Finally, the most important ingredient for the surgical mask. It must be splash-proof to act as a barrier against droplets and light splatter. This ingredient is readily available in many outdoor/camping shops. It’s quite an amazing chemical that renders jackets and boots water resistant but breathable.
Why is the outer layer coloured? Because that’s the layer that has been treated. For the surgical masks without any colour, the outer layer is either marked or it may appear slightly shinier that the innermost layer. Like I said, some manufacturers use the same material for their innermost and outermost layer. A bottle of this spray costs only $27.
Practically all surgical masks for practical daily use are made from the above materials. Below is an image of a HEPA filter effective against PM2.5. You may find this material in some very expensive masks out there, but it still won’t filter off viruses. It functions a bit better than the simpler masks, but not very good value for money if you ask me.
Going back to the manufacturers’ claims, are these materials really that hard to find these days now that you know what these masks are really made of? The humble surgical mask is just a humble surgical mask. It’s not some sophisticated high tech medical device. Go figure. Anyway, I took the video below outside Mustafa Centre this afternoon. Will we have this problem if we had mobilised our NS boys to make those masks instead of packing them?
I thought China is facing acute shortage and has banned the export of masks. Well, that’s what I thought and if you continue to listen to media reports and interviews with the manufacturers, you’ll continue to think that way. The sellers screenshot below are all shipping out from China and they have literally millions of pieces in stock. So how difficult is it to import a mask making machine plus raw materials whose export is officially banned? Even as we donate $1M in medical supplies over, these suppliers state specifically that they don’t ship to Singapore. Of course this is not the official stand of the Chinese government, but in chaotic times, regional “warlords” call the shots. Now how’s that for reciprocation? We are eaten alive without knowing it.