By Judit E. Puskas, Ph.D., P. Eng
They are uncomfortable; they are hot; they become wet; glasses fog over….and the list continues. As Stephen Nash wrote: Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, I used to think people wearing masks were hiding something.
Masks have been around for thousands of years. However, masks protecting against a disease were born in response of the plague (Black Death) in Europe. In the 5 years following the first case in 1347, more than 25 million people (one third of Europe’s population) passed away. Later more waves came, killing a total of 200 million people, and protective masks were developed. Nash called the the plague mask from 17th-century Italy “the single most terrifying mask I’ve ever seen.” He also quotes a 2019 article, “The Plague Doctor of Venice,” describing this medieval PPE designed by French medical doctor Charles de l’Orme (1584–1678). It was a a leather hat with a bird-like mask with goggles and a beak, a leather robe, and a baton with a handle on which “time flies” (tempus fugit in Latin) was written. The beak contained herbs and a medical formula, intended to kill the bacillus that spread through air, and mosquito and rat bites.
Nash, and hopefully more of us, are coming around to the idea that people in masks are being cautious and considerate. In fact, mask wearing has already been popular in some cultures, mostly in Asia. When I first visited Japan, I was taken by many people wearing surgical masks on the street. My taxi driver also wore a mask in his cab, white gloves and handed me a package of Kleenex when I sat in the back where the seat was covered with white lace. In China, Vietnam and Thailand also many people wore masks.
I am a scientist and my job is to create a new mask that would be more comfortable to wear. It is very important to listen to the fundamental science. For example, to understand how viruses spread. For example, the polio virus can be transmitted by water. During the summer of 1955 many parents did not understand this; they took their kids to the swimming pool and whole families came down with polio.
The COVID-19 virus can spread through the air. Therefore it makes sense to protect ourselves by wearing a mask. The next step is to find an appropriate material. My research group may just have the right material — a rubbery, flexible, water-repellent gauze-like material. It can be sterilized effectively, and if it tears it can simply be recycled to make a new mask out of the damaged mask. We are now looking for a manufacturer — sadly, we could not find one in the U.S. so we will have to work with a European company. Maybe we can open a unit in this country — it is time to bring this type of advanced manufacturing home. Hopefully it will be an OSU-branded, new domestic mask.
In the short term, we plan to work with meat packers. We want them to tell us if it works, and all problems associated with it so we can make the necessary changes. The goal is to be cautious and considerate without being uncomfortable. There are other industries that could also benefit from this product once it becomes a manufactured reality.
The opportunity to design a product to improve the comfort and health of U.S. workers is the motivation behind my work. Through engineering design we can improve occupational advancements for mask wearers. Please help us to achieve this goal and donate to the FABE Innovation Fund for Bio-based Polymers — thank you. https://www.giveto.osu.edu/makeagift/?fund=316979.
Dr. Judit E. Puskas is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering (FABE) of The Ohio State University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.. This column is provided by the OSU Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, OSU Extension, the Sustainability Institute and the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Science. The author would like to thank S. Dee Jepsen, PhD., Associate Professor, FABE, State Leader, OSU Extension Agricultural Safety & Health Program; Advisor, The Ohio State University.