Masks, a true story

A few decades ago, as rather a callow and idealistic young man, I made a career mis-step. Specifically working in the NHS, undergoing two years training out of the then three year SRN programme. I have worked my secondments doing medical procedures under supervision in Operating Theatre, Casualty (A&E or ‘Emergency’) male surgical and medical wards working on everything from delivering deep intramuscular and subcutaneous injections to being scrubbed for major surgical procedures like hip transplants and emptying bedpans and urine bottles. That and being trained for ICU and reverse barrier nursing. Why I ended up quitting is between me and my conscience. However, I have done my bit, so to speak, and a few people got their lives extended because Ma Sticker’s boy was heads up and on the ball. So, a no-score win there I think.

One of the things I learned working in hospitals was about the use of disposable surgical masks, why they are used where they are and why filter masks are not used instead. There are whole libraries of scientific studies available to back me up on this. Such was my basic training. Which includes the following anecdote;

I was in a hurry one morning, running a little late, having suffered a flat tyre on my way in to work. When I went to the operating theatre washroom to scrub up, the theatre’s normal stash of surgical masks wasn’t in their usual place. So after a quick hunt around I found a box of filter masks and put one on. Thirty seconds later as I was washing my hands and arms before going in to help set up theatre for the next patient, the Duty Sister blew out my eardrums with a stern “Sticker! Take that off!”
“Sorry Sister, but we’re out of standard masks.” I countered lamely.
“This way.” She beckoned me out of the washroom and gave me a severe wigging about the hows, whys and wherefores of wearing disposable surgical masks in operating theatre, before handing me a replacement box of new surgical masks to restock the washroom. Once suitably masked and re-scrubbed I was sent back, somewhat mollified but a little wiser, to go do.

What I had driven into my thick skull was this; operating theatre staff were not to wear filter masks as the sole purpose of a surgical mask is to stop us breathing pathogens over an open wound. Surgical operations open a wound cavity in someone’s body and not breathing the host of lurgis normally resident in your airways all over that gaping red maw is a jolly good thing as it massively reduces the amount of dead bodies in the mortuary.

If you’ve ever seen (and smelled) a really bad (and fortunately extremely rare) wound infection, they are pretty stomach turning affairs and occasionally even seasoned ward staff could be found chundering in the wards sluice.

The thing is with masks is that they have the potential to be both good and bad. Disposable surgical masks should only ever be worn once, as should N95’s, the clue being the word ‘disposable’, and they all have limited facility. Masks are only useful in reducing the radius of infection from you over other people. They cannot stop viral transmission, only reduce the area you, as a potentially infected person, can breathe potential infection out. If you’re infectious, was the rule, you were not allowed in theatre at all. Staph Aureus and E.Coli, to name but two, are nasty things to be avoided if at all possible.

A cloth mask is, as I have stated before, a one-time-only get-you-home affair and should never be worn twice without a thorough sanitising. A cloth mask must be thoroughly hot washed then heat treated to above boiling point with a hot iron and sealed in a new, unused plastic bag ready for use. Every time before use. Even then it will only offer very limited protection and will need a fresh paper tissue insert as a snot catcher as well. It is also not wise to wear a mask for protracted periods because it will increase your CO2 intake and rebreathing of pathogens from your snot laden sinuses and airways. Which may lead to near constant reinfection.

Now I’ve sat through hours of classroom time on this and allied ENT topics, albeit over thirty years ago, but it all boils down to this; you can’t wear a mask all day every day and expect it to give any level of protection after two and a half hours. Even if they’re part of a full NBC or Hazmat suit with activated charcoal filters, masks cannot completely stop viruses. Not even an N95 standard will do that. If you wanted to be absolutely sure of being virus-free you could try to purchase a total immersion suit with add on gas filtration or an ex-NASA or old Soviet era space suit and set up a decon chamber at your front door, providing your home is hermetically sealed, but that would be a bit extreme now, wouldn’t it?

Therefore the mandatory mask legislation currently being enacted in various jurisdictions has come as something of a surprise. Not to mention looking somewhat insane. The time for masks has come and gone. It went in late March and early April 2020. At the time of writing in August 2020, wearing a mask is purely symbolic and possibly bad for your health if not properly sanitised before each use.

Re sanitising; You can use your microwave like below, if you have a spare microwave oven you don’t mind throwing away…. But as the man says, this is only for emergencies. Do watch all the way through before attempting this at home. This blog accepts no responsibility for you getting it wrong and blowing up your kitchen and the neighbourhood power supply.

As for waiting for some nebulous ‘miracle’ vaccine; I’m no ‘Anti-vaxxer’ but would encourage everyone to resist having one of these shots until proper double blind clinical trials are completed and the results made public in the next 18 months. Because that’s how long it takes to properly test vaccines. You can’t rush biology. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Especially Government sponsored media. That should always be viewed with your bullshit detector on it’s highest setting.

3 thoughts on “Masks, a true story”

    1. No. To positively kill a virus in cloth it has to be washed at high temperature in a strong disinfecting solution, or using a plasma like in the video. A high salt solution would have to be over boiling temperature to be certain. Then dried thoroughly before placing in a sterile bag to await next use.

      May not do plain cotton much good though…


    2. Mmm. Never heard of that one before. It would have to be almost crackling to kill a high percentage of the lurgi we breathe out on a daily basis. 10% normal saline is used to wash out wound cavities, but as a primary disinfectant?

      Have to hang a big “I don’t know” notice on that one.


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