The untold story of the first N95 mask 15 minutes to read
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The untold story of the first N95 mask 15 minutes to read


One of mankind’s most important innovations took more than a century to perfect the design.

Think of the COVID-19 pandemic, besides soap, hand sanitizer, toilet paper … the image of the N95 mask deserves to be seen as a symbol. The mask that fits snugly around the nose and mouth of the wearer is capable of filtering 95% of particles in the air, even viruses, which other protective devices do not. This is a “survival” device that fell into a shortage when the outbreak suddenly broke out so strong that health workers were forced to work in dangerous conditions – susceptible to cross-infection from patients.

How did a flimsy plastic “cup” of cloth become the most important medical device of the 21st century? It all started in 1910, with the little-known doctor, wishing to save the world from the most serious epidemic of the time.

Article written by author Mark Wilson on Fast Company page.


The first mask was made to avoid “smell”

Christos Lynteris, A senior lecturer at the Department of Social Anthropology at St. Andrew’s University and an expert on the history of medical masks said back in time to the time before humans knew the presence of the virus. and bacteria, we only wear masks in random ways.

He pointed to the Renaissance paintings and showed us the characters covering their noses with handkerchiefs to avoid illness. In several paintings depicting Marseilles, France in 1720, which was once the epicenter of the plague, grave diggers and body processers wrapped a thin layer of cloth around their faces, although the disease was thought to be contagious. from fleas on rats. “Aerial action is simply a way to combat the spread from sick people who believe that diseases such as plague stemming from toxic gases rising from the ground and spreading in the air.”

Dr. Schnabel, a plague doctor in 17th-century Rome. [Image: Wiki Commons]

The theory of toxic gases spurred the study and design of a series of anti-epidemic masks across Europe in 1600. They are often worn by plague doctors. The masks are elongated like rostrum and have two small holes at the edge to put the fragrance in. They think that they are protected from disease by protecting themselves from the stench of disease,

“The smell that causes disease, this way of thinking was spread and trusted until the early 19th century,” Lynteris said. It is noteworthy that 200 years later, a French doctor named Antoine Barthélemy argued that the bill beak masks are responsible for the disease because they scare people, and when the body is scared, they are more likely to get sick.

By the late 1870s, when scientists discovered the existence of bacteria, the field of modern microbiology was born. However, what happened next was not much different from what happened, just that no one used the scary beak beak mask anymore.


A handkerchief … wrapped around the face

Doctors began wearing the first surgical masks in 1897, they looked like a handkerchief wrapped around the face, designed to filter pathogens in the air and prevent doctors from sneezing or coughing. wound during surgery.

The difference between a regular mask and a gas mask is important, which is why healthcare professionals are saddened when they are instructed to wear surgical masks instead of gas masks. Masks are not only made of different materials, they also differ in their ability to seal the face and prevent suspended particles in the air. Therefore, gas masks are the most effective masks when they really filter out the air you breathe.


The first gas mask born from plague and racism

Health-care workers wear anti-bubonic masks in Japan during the Manchu plague in 1911. [Photo: courtesy University of Cambridge/Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH, The University of Cambridge)/The University of Hong Kong Libraries]

In the fall of 1910, an epidemic broke out across Manchuria, northern China. “The plague is like the end of the world, it kills 100% of those who are infected, no one survives. It kills them within 24 to 48 hours after the first symptoms appear. No one has seen anything like this in modern times, like the description of the Black Death. ”


* The Black Death was the name of a pandemic that occurred in Asia and Europe in the fourteenth century, culminating in Europe in 1346-1351, with the number of deaths in Europe and Asia between 75- 200 million people. The Black Death plague is considered to be one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, estimated to have killed 30% – 60% of the population of Europe (equivalent to 25 – 50 million) and reducing the global population from about 450 million to 350 – 375 million by 1400.


This was followed by an intense scientific race to find out what caused the disease and to prevent it. “Both Russia and China want to prove that they can afford it, because this will lead to another sovereignty claim. Whoever has the scientific ability will control this rich and important area. ”

Doctor Lien-teh Wu who is representing the Chinese side in investigating the disease. He was born in Penang, Malaysia and studied medicine at Cambridge University. Wu was young and not fluent in Mandarin Chinese, so during the plague that attracted the attention of the international press and many doctors from all over the world, his voice was not taken very seriously. During an autopsy, Wu determined that the plague was not spread from fleas but through the air.

Wu Lien-teh - Wikipedia
Portrait of doctor Lien-teh Wu. [Photo: wikipedia]

Developed from the surgical masks seen in the West, Wu creates a tough mask from gauze, cotton, and many layers of cloth, which wrap around the face to filter the inhaled air. His invention is considered to be groundbreaking, but some doctors still doubt its effectiveness.

“It used to be a fairly famous incident, when Wu met Gérald Mesny – a longtime French physician in the industry. Wu explained to him the theory that bubonic plague is a type of pneumonia and can be spread by air. The French doctor insulted and attacked him in a racist manner, saying, “What can we expect from a Chinese guy?”. To prove what he said, Mesny visited and looked after the patient in a plague hospital without wearing a mask invented by Wu, resulting in his death just two days later. “

Other doctors in the area, at the time, also quickly designed their own masks. Some looked weird, some sort of like a hooded head with glasses, just like a specialized diving mask.

After many practical tests, Wu’s mask won the most effective and was able to protect users from bacteria. According to Lynteris, it is indeed a great design because it can be made easily by hand with available materials, cheap price. Between January and February 1911, the production of masks increased sharply. From medical workers, soldiers to people, everyone wears masks. This not only helps prevent the spread of plague, medical masks / masks also mean as a new image of modern medical science.

Electric drivers and passengers in Seattle wear masks during the 1918 pandemic. [Photo: Wiki Commons]

Wu’s mask invention quickly became a phenomenon thanks to the international press. “It has a strange effect, and is loved by the press because… you can imagine, the image of a white mask appearing on the black-and-white newspaper, looks mysterious and attractive, maybe as a marketing success. ”

When the Spanish flu pandemic appeared in 1918, Wu’s face mask became very popular among the scientific and mass community. Global companies continue to increase the production of similar-style masks to minimize the spread of flu.


The N95 mask has a premise from the ribbon and bra

N95 masks are considered as “descendants” of Wu masks. During World War I and World War II, scientists invented a gas filter that wraps around the head to clean the inhaled gas. Similarly, glass-fiber filter masks have also begun to be used in the mining industry to prevent black lung disease (pneumoconiosis caused by breathing in coal and asbestos dust).

“All kinds of gas masks are quite large, it looks like industrial gas masks,” Nikki McCullough, The head of 3M’s occupational health and safety department, which specializes in the production of N95 masks. “You can wash them every night and reuse them the next day.”

This device helps save lives, but it is very heavy and the main reason lies in the air filter. The thick glass fiber makes breathing difficult, as well as the head covering, making the wearer always in a hot state. By the 1950s, scientists began to discover the dangers of inhaling asbestos, but people working with asbestos did not like to wear bulky masks. Imagine, they have to work in the construction site at a temperature of 30 degrees Celsius and wrap their heads with thick rubber to protect themselves from invisible threats.

[Photo: 3M]

At the same time, Sara Little Turnbull – the decoration editor of House Beautiful magazine started with the gifting division of 3M to advise on the creation of strong gift ribbons. The company has developed Polymer melting technology and blown them into fibers. Turnbull recognized the greater potential for this process and tested the material on shoulder pads, taking advantage of relationships in the fashion industry for advice. In 1958, she decided to tell the 3M company why it should expand its business of nonwovens on a larger scale. Turnbull presented over 100 product ideas and was given the mold design for a bra.

The late 1950s was quite difficult for Turnbull, she had to spend time visiting relatives treated at hospitals. She lost three relatives in a row, the accumulated grief led her to an idea for a new invention: the “bubble” surgical mask introduced by 3M in 1961, inspired by the way the shirt was cast. chest year. When 3M realized that this type of respirator could not block pathogens, they changed its name to a dust mask.

Trumbull’s sketch for the surgical mask, inspired by the year of the bra design. [Image: © Center for Design Institute]

It is difficult to set standards for something that does not even exist in health / occupational safety. By the 1970s, the General Department of Mining and Geology, the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety worked together to create the first criteria for what they called a “disposable respirator mask” ( single use respirators). The first N95 disposable dust mask, developed by 3M, was approved on May 25, 1972. Instead of using fiberglass, the company reused the technology they had developed to help. The ribbon is stronger, and creates effective air filters.

Under the microscope, the fabric looked like thousands of twill threads with many tiny gaps. When the particles, whether fine dust or virus, accidentally “fall in”, they will be retained. 3M has charged a small amount of electricity on the grid so that smaller particles can “fly” voluntarily. At the same time, due to the small gap, breathing is quite easy for the wearer.

Schematic of the test mask showing the various layers. | Download ...

The longer you wear an N95 respirator, the more effective the air purifier will be. Many “stuck” particles only make other particles easier to catch, but breathing becomes much harder. This is why the N95 can wear for more than eight hours in extremely dusty environments, as they constantly filter the air around you!

N95 respirators have been used in industries for decades before the health sector’s demand increased in 1990, when drug-resistant tuberculosis became rampant. HIV is only transmitted to immunocompromised patients, but tuberculosis begins to infect health workers. To prevent airborne pathogens, a standard N95 respirator was taken to the hospital to equip the medical team.

Back to Wu, after succeeding with his mask invention, he founded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in China, almost won the Nobel Prize and appeared in many historical books. Gas masks are always considered an important device in China. During the SARS epidemic, people here wore masks to prevent the spread of the disease; When major cities like Beijing are polluted, they also wear masks to filter inhaled air.

The N95 mask is not so perfect, it often does not cling well to the faces of children or beards, and when not attached, the effectiveness of the N95 will not be as good “as rumored”. In addition, N95 variants are often used in prevention rooms without the original breathing valve, which will make the wearer hot and breathless.

N95 masks have evolved over the last hundred years to deal with many crises. Nonetheless, the 3M company constantly appraises the quality of the N95 respirator, adjusting its filter to its anthropometry to make this product even more complete.

* Anthropology is a science that studies the size and ratio of parts of the human body, in order to apply to the design of machinery systems, equipment and products.

Author: Mark Wilson
Source: fastcompany
Translator: woodee

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