IEEE PULSE presents

Testing PPE: Are DIY masks a viable alternative to address shortages?

COVID-19 Crisis Response
Author: Cynthia Weber

As the global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus continues to spread, researchers from across the world are harnessing their skills and opening their labs to contribute to solutions for managing and addressing the health crisis. One area identified by hospitals and medical providers as a critical need has been the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), which is required to keep health care providers safe from exposure to the virus as they care for patients. In response, manufacturers such as 3M have promised to increase production in order to fulfill the extensive orders. However, medical providers may not see the bulk of these outputs for weeks even as current supplies are running low.

To address immediate needs, some health providers have been turning to the many DIY (do-it-yourself) plans available online for PPE. In many communities, small local businesses and research labs have offered to reconfigure their equipment to begin manufacturing masks and other protective equipment. But are these efforts viable and safe solutions? Enter the experts.

Figure 1

John C. Criscione, Ph.D., Vice Dean of EnMed (Engineering Medicine) at Texas A&M University engaged his lab to set up an evaluation system for DIY masks (Figure 1). “I began this work because my colleagues in the Texas A&M Health Science Center were considering the use of DIY PPE masks to be used in a crisis situation,” he noted. “We all thought that a little test data could go a long way in assessing the viability of options.”

Criscione’s lab is focused on design and testing of medical devices, so it already had the appropriate process knowledge in place. Even so, “I knew very little about PPE N95 masks two weeks ago,” he said. “We had to learn the proper testing procedures and identify the appropriate expertise on campus. Fortunately, the same type of masks are used throughout campus for research like BSL-3, and there is much know-how in occupational health and safety in a Tier 1 research university.”

Work started in the lab with building and testing the most popular DIY masks designs available on the Internet. “We quickly realized that they all failed in the fit testing,” Criscione noted. “Consequently, our team went into a design iteration cycle focused exclusively on fit.” Each of the three engineers on the team tested approximately 10 designs, and of those 30 designs, one consistently provided the best performance in the fit tests. His lab then created a video showcasing their evaluation of this design and associated recommendations, which is available for viewing by anyone who is searching for a crisis alternative and might be concerned about the efficacy of these popular DIY designs (https://enmed.tamu.edu/DIYmasks/).

Criscione notes that the biggest challenge for these types of masks continues to be in the fit testing, which his lab plans to pursue in more detail. According to Criscione, “there is a need for data from a properly designed study using volunteers, and we are just starting to explore the necessary IRB approvals.” 

“The end goal of this project is to generate data for healthcare providers to help them make rational decisions on DIY masks. In addition to the fit testing, my colleagues have tested the filter efficiency of many household materials to identify potential fabrics. Safety data on the best filtering materials is currently the greatest gap.”

As to what would benefit this project moving forward, Criscione would like to gather input from multiple experts regarding the various standards. “How do we label something as almost meeting a standard? Right now we just say that it does not achieve the N95 threshold and that puts a decent mask in the same category as a bandana, yet clearly it is much better.” Answering questions such as these remain next steps in the lab’s efforts to contribute to the current crisis response, and as information evolves the site will be updated.

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