Masking the Problem: Is there harm in wearing a mask a few days in a row?

(WSVN) - Since we use them so often, we’re probably all guilty of not washing or disposing of our masks daily, so is there any harm in wearing for a mask a few days in a row? 7’s Kevin Ozebek answers that question in tonight’s special report: Masking the Problem.

Masks are the defining symbol of the new normal, and we know they work at limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Patrick Grant, Florida Atlantic University: “I would say it is the most effective thing we can do.”

But Dr. Patrick Grant, a biomedical scientist at Florida Atlantic University, has made an alarming discovery about what can be living on your mask.

Dr. Patrick Grant: “I’d like to think I have pretty good hygiene. That was my assumption, so I was pretty disturbed to see how much was growing on this.”

Masks act as a roadblock against aerosol, the tiny droplets we release when we breathe, cough, sneeze and talk.

These droplets can carry bacteria and viruses like COVID-19.

We tested different masks this summer with Dr. Grant’s colleague Dr. Nwadiuto.

Dr. Nwadiuto Esiobu, Florida Atlantic University: “Each time we do this experiment, we find that 100% of the time, we got no aerosols passed through the KN-95s.”

But Dr. Grant says take all that aerosol, add in the germs on our hands, which we use to adjust our masks, and they quickly get very dirty

Dr. Patrick Grant: “You have to make sure you are not cross contaminating other surfaces, or other people, more problematically, with that same mask.”

To see what micro-organisms can be on well-worn masks, I brought these two into Dr. Grant’s lab.

This cloth one, I used for one full day.

This surgical-style mask also got a full day’s use, which included a morning workout.

Dr. Grant took a sample from each masks, and then, swabbed a petri dish.

It incubated all weekend.

Dr. Patrick Grant: “This is the surgical mask.”

Kevin Ozebek: “Oh, gross!.”

And then, we came back to see the eye-popping results.

The petri dish with the sample from the surgical mask was loaded with bacteria and likely yeast colonies.

Dr. Patrick Grant: “Yeah, this is alive. This came off your mask.”

The petri dish with the cloth mask sample hosted even more colonies.

Kevin Ozebek: “That is horrifying to see, I have to say. I did not expect that.”

Dr. Patrick Grant: “I think even more troubling, at the moment, during the pandemic is viruses, such as coronavrius, is also likely trapped on our mask if we are exposed to it.”

Not all of the micro-organisms festering in these petri dishes are dangerous.

Dr. Patrick Grant: “Some of them can be quite beneficial to us, but occasionally, some of them are not.”

Some of the potentially bad bacteria Dr. Grant has found on masks include e-coli and staph. He’s also found types of fungi, and while his lab cannot detect viruses like coronavirus, he has little doubt they’re on masks too.

Dr. Patrick Grant: “If you’re infected with it, you’re breathing it onto your mask.”

We can also transfer germs onto our masks by touching them and by touching contaminated surfaces like bathroom door handles, which is why it’s best to start every day with a fresh mask.

Dr. Patrick Grant: “If you’re not confident about how clean your mask might be and you don’t have any way to clean it, it’s probably best to dispose of it.”

Dr. Grant has created this patent pending mask disinfector. It uses a specific type of UV light to damage the genetic material of micro-organisms and viruses, including COVID-19.

Dr. Patrick Grant: “That kind of damage at a significant level isn’t sustainable for life.”

But for now, your best bet is running cloth masks through the wash, and these surgical masks should be tossed out after wearing them for one day.

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