Stop Wearing Surgical Masks, It Doesn’t Protect Against Swine Flu

Posted by – April 30, 2009

The hysteria over swine flu has spread much faster than the virus itself. People as far away from the disease as Malaysia and Spain are donning surgical masks in public. In Mexico City, the epicenter of the outbreak, troops are fanning out all over the city to give commuters surgical masks.

 A Mexican soldier hands out masks inside the subway at the Pino Suarez station in Mexico City, on April 26. AFP / Getty Images / Alfredo Estrella

A Mexican soldier hands out masks inside the subway at the Pino Suarez station in Mexico City, on April 26. AFP / Getty Images / Alfredo Estrella

Masked mariachi!!  in a square at the Coyoacan neighborhood in Mexico City, Sunday, April 26.  AP / Enric Marti

Masked mariachi!! in a square at the Coyoacan neighborhood in Mexico City, Sunday, April 26. AP / Enric Marti

Nuns wear face masks during a closed door mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, Sunday, April 26.  strongAP / Dario Lopez-Mills/strong

Nuns wear face masks during a closed door mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, Sunday, April 26. AP / Dario Lopez-Mills

A couple wearing masks kisses in Mexico City on April 25.   AFP / Getty Images / Alfredo Estrella

A couple wearing masks kisses in Mexico City on April 25. AFP / Getty Images / Alfredo Estrella

People awaiting care at a Mexico City hospital Wednesday.  AP / Eduardo Verdugo

People awaiting care at a Mexico City hospital Wednesday. AP / Eduardo Verdugo

The problem is, SURGICAL MASKS DON’T PREVENT TRANSMISSION OF SWINE FLU! All this ubiquitous masking is pointless; the flu virus is small enough to pass through the pores of a surgical mask with ease.

In 2003, Jon Cohen wrote that the SARS virus, which is just 100 nanometers in size, can easily pass through such barriers. And there’s every reason to believe that swine flu, at 80 to 120 nanometers, can, too.

Slate: Do Surgical Masks Stop Swine Flu?

People feel the urge to mask-up most strongly outdoors, when airborne material is dispersed and least likely to hit you. You’re more likely to be exposed to viruses in a small enclosed space. And even a N-95 respirator can’t provide protection against viruses, which are usually .1 or .2 microns in diameter. To achieve total protection against swine flu, you’d need a full-faced mask with a high-efficiency particle air (HEPA) filter respirator system. Like this:

Dustin Hoffman in the 1995 movie Outbreak

Dustin Hoffman in the 1995 movie "Outbreak"

But masks like that are hot as hell, breathing through a HEPA filter is mad uncomfortable, and this kind of getup is expensive and rarely available outside of emergency response agencies. And would we really need to go these lengths for a virus with symptoms no worse than regular flu? Remember that regular flu kills 36,000 and hospitalizes 200,000 in America each year, and Swine Flu has killed 1 in America.

Drop the mask. You’re doing it wrong.

Nick