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Anatomy of the N-95 Mask

Graphics by Aroop Mishra

All About the N95 Masks: How Did They Evolve?

N-95 Masks have become a stand-out symbol of the fight against Coronavirus. We a look at the history of these masks

4 min read

The N95 mask has become one of the most recognisable symbols around the world in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. Shortage of those who need these masks the most has been reported from across the world. N95 masks differ from masks The mask can stop particles of 0.3 Microns and above in size, including bacteria and viruses. But how did masks come to become an integral part of healthcare self-protection equipment? Let’s take a look.

Variations of masks have been around since the 16th century, including the grotesque bird masks that doctors in Europe wore during the great plague of the 17th century. The masks were primarily used because it was believed that diseases spread through miasma, or the smell emanating from the patients and the dead.

Surgical masks started being used towards the end of the 19th century, not as a device to keep particles out, but more to prevent cough droplets from doctors making their way into patients’ wounds during a surgery. Surgical masks primary use till today remains that.

The N95 respirator has been 100 years in the making, starting with a deadly plague outbreak in China in 1912. A young Chinese doctor, Lein-teh Wu, discovered that plague doesn’t spread through fleas, as popularly believed, but is actually airborne. Which led to the creation of the first ever respirators.

Wu padded up the existing surgical masks with gauze, cotton and several layers of cloth and wrapped it tightly across the face. The masks and several other steps implemented by Wu, eventually helped curb the plague. By the time the Spanish Flu outbreak happened in 1918, Wu’s masks were being used globally.

The two world wars saw the evolution of the respirators, with scientists adding air filters and creating bulkier gas masks. These masks eventually are designed for industrial use and used especially in mining. While effective, the masks are bulky and hard to wear for a long time.

In the late 1950s, Sara Little Turnbull, a former interior design editor, worked with the company 3M to create a new, non-woven material, that is strong yet pliable. From the 100 ideas she presented for the uses of this material, she was sanctioned to design and create a bra. But owing to some personal tragedies, she decided to create bubble surgical masks using the material. These masks are rebranded as dust masks, after they fail to stop pathogens. In 1972, after a lot of redesigns, the first single use N-95 dust respirators were released.

Over the years, the design of N-95 masks underwent many changes, becoming sturdier and more effective. The more N-95 masks are used, the better they become at stopping pathogens, but longer use also makes exhaling hard, which is why experts recommend that they not be used for longer than 8 hours. Through the 70s and 80s, N-95 masks again became more popular for their industrial uses. The 90s saw a rise in drug-resistant TB and a lot of healthcare workers also suffered and the N-95 masks made their way back into healthcare. Today of course, there is a race to produce more masks, as the world tries to fight the Coronavirus pandemic.

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