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Research on repurposing filter products for masks?

by TurnTrout1 min read3rd Apr 202012 comments



A local organization is looking to produce masks for the hospital, and they reached out to me for guidance. Since this is outside of my expertise and I haven't been following all of the recent research, I'm passing the questions along here.

We are looking for some valid research on the use of commercial products for face masks. We have a couple of designs that can fit over or have a pocket to insert an additional filter. I have found multiple sources online that refer to furnace filters, air filtration system filters, even HEPA vacuum bags, as ideal products to use to either completely comprise a face mask or be inserted into a pocket between layers of fabric to provide extra protection.

My questions are:

• Which of these products are or are not safe to be breathing through? The only caution I have found is to be careful to check for fiberglass in the content.

• Which are most effective, or does it come down to the MERV/MRP rating? We have been looking at filters at MERV 13-16 and/or MRP 2500-2800 in range. Are these safe as long as they can be breathed through?

• Can these types of materials be layered to provide extra protection i.e. is layering two ply of MERV 11 like a MERV 22 or is there a loss ratio? Is there a formula which can be applied?

• Could other materials be used to enhance the filter’s effectiveness, safety, smell, etc.? I have seen models that added an activated charcoal filter over the top, coffee filter, etc.? I have also heard that layers create a dispersion effect that increases the protective factor i.e. a thick bundled knitted scarf has a higher protective factor because of the density.

There is so much out there but it is mostly DIY crafters, and I am interested in a more empirical opinion!


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Check out the research from Texaas A&M University Research Department - it should answer all of your questions, they tell you which MERV filter to use and how many layers you need depending on the rating.


This ended up answering the questions. Thanks! :)

I've looked at a small amount of data on this question. I think it's a really important one (see a related question of mine), but am extremely not an expert. The most actionable item is this study that essentially "salting" a surgical mask might make it significantly more protective against flu viruses. The study's in vivo section with mice strikes me as a bit sketchy (small n, and unclear how representative of mask filtration their mouse procdeure actually is), but their in vitro section seems legit, and the study is in Scientific Reports (part of the Nature publishing group). If you're making a DIY mask/filter and it's not too thick already, it can't hurt to include a salted layer. Their proposed mechanism of action is by the salt killing the virus particles, not filtering them, so it should stack well with particulate filters. The recipe in the paper is to coat a hydrophobic filter in solution of salt and surfactant (they used polysorbate 20, which is approved to use as a food additive), then let it dry.

The 100% efficacy for a middle filter layer that's had a saltwater + surfactant sprayed onto it sounds really good; but I wonder how tight the filter material has to be, for that level of efficacy. I also wonder how much air resistance the salt coat adds.

A HEPA filter + carbon would be less restrictive if the carbon part were salted than if the HEPA filter itself were salted, but that might not deactivate all of the virus.

Would "salting" with zinc or copper help too?

2Dmitry Vaintrob1yNot sure but doubt it: IIRC, copper kills by catalysing intra-cellular reactions, which are slow (compared to salt, which should have near-instantaneous mechanism of action since it can blow up membranes). Also I would be worried about safety of breathing copper. But I might be wrong about this!

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6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:27 PM

I've read that Hepa vaccume filters can be dangerous as they can contain fiberglass particles. Is this true? Are any of them actually safe to breathe through?

Kirby says their HEPA vacuum bags do not contain fiberglass, nor chemical treatments. I called them & they emailed me back. Check with the manufacturer for the brand you want to use.

Can you share the email from Kirby?

I don't have an answer, but maybe you can reach out to the people at MUSC who designed this: https://web.musc.edu/innovation/covid-19-innovation

I notice that that mask has an exhaust valve, which means it filters air only on the way in, not on the way out. But I understand that a large part of the reason for wearing a mask is to protect other people from you, and an exhaust valve defeats that.


I'm just hoping that that they can give the OP some information about using HEPA filters.

I've noticed that many N95 masks also have an exhaust valve.