The Achilles Heal
At the commencement of the COVID-19 pandemic - there was an immediate shortfall of personal protective equipment (PPE). Front-line workers were reported to have acquired masks from Bunnings and Australia’s stockpile of 25 million masks was dwarfed by the sheer need. The vulnerability could not have been more evident and the reliance on local manufacturing remains a serious topic of discussion.
Tests conducted on masks marketed as N95 from 21 manufacturers in China show that half of Chinese N95 masks fail quality-tests with some being no better than a cotton cloth.
An investigation by 7.30 into multiple Chinese manufacturing companies offering to sell PPE to Australian medical suppliers has found some of the businesses are not even registered and have no experience in producing medical masks or equipment.
Another investigation found that doctors and nurses treating patients infected with COVID-19 in some Australian hospitals were wearing counterfeit face masks.
Most masks do not pass specific tests required for Australian standards and masks that will not go into hospitals and other essential areas do not require TGA approval. This means that they can still be sold by retailers and wholesalers as long as they do not make their way into hospitals or other medical spaces.
The Deplorable Quality
A mask generally consists of a number of layers. For example, the surgical mask normally consists an outer layer (spunbond), a substrate layer (meltblown) and a comfort treated layer (spunbond) that touches the face. The mask is then constructed by a machine and a small number is then sent off for testing Bacterial Filtration Efficiency (BFE), blood splatter resistance, breathability and others. Most do not reach the highest standard (i.e. level 3) and many fail because they were poorly constructed by poorly designed machinery or sub-standard materials.
Most materials used for masks come from manufacturers in China even to this day. That is not to say that manufacturers in China cannot produce good quality, for they certainly can. However, because there is no oversight and the obvious geographical separation, the material standards are not satisfied most of the time and thus the risk become too great.
This area of PPE is one that needs greater focus given our changing world and it may be time that minimum standards in Australia be elevated to Level 3, thus ensuring the highest protection possible for any person who dons a mask.