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Face Mask Safety Debate Underway As Schools Finalize Reopening Plans

Homemade protective masks and pieces of cloth on a gray background.
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Some Floridians fear wearing face masks could result in breathing in excessive amounts of carbon dioxide.

As schools look into potential reopening plans this fall, whether to require masks has become a central part of the discussion.

Comments on masks being harmful are popping up in local government meetings regarding mask ordinances—like a recent emergency meeting in Taylor County. Resident Angela Archer says she has some concerns:

"Masks have not been proven to prevent COVID. They do reduce [oxygen] levels of the people wearing the mask. They also cause the person wearing the mask to breathe in the poisonous gas of carbon monoxide."

Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that can come from things like car exhaust and tobacco smoke. Humans breathe out carbon dioxide, not carbon monoxide.

Parents against masks in Taylor County are pressuring School Superintendent Danny Glover not to require them in schools. Glover says these parents have concerns over how a face cover could impact a student's health:

"Some are saying that some doctors are worried about the kids wearing masks for prolonged amounts of time. Something to do with them breathing back in the carbon dioxide."

Many parents and residents around the state are echoing those fears. Sylvia Ball is a resident in Palm Beach County:

"When you wear a mask, the nose is cut off, and the mouth is cut off, and you're breathing carbon dioxide over and over again."

But epidemiologist Dr. Perry Brown says there's no research to support that claim:

"Because the masks are porous think of them as a mesh that's fairly tight but as tight as it may seem and look and feel, droplet nuclei that are the way in which [the] coronavirus is often transmitted are barred from—it's a barrier to those droplet nuclei either coming in or going out."

Brown says that's how masks protect the wearer from the coronavirus while also preventing the wearer from possibly spreading the disease if they unknowingly have it. But he says the mesh of the fabric is not woven so tightly that it keeps carbon dioxide in or oxygen out:

"Oxygen is a molecule. It has two oxygen atoms. They are so infinitesimally smaller than the droplet nuclei, and they pass freely. Carbon dioxide is a molecule made up of three atoms, one carbon, and two oxygens. They also pass freely. Whereas the droplet nuclei are infinitesimally larger, and they get stopped."

Allergist Ron Saff says there are even real-world examples that prove face masks are safe for children and adults:

"Surgeons in the operating room are working for hours on end with a mask on, and nobody's really passed out."

Another concern for parents is whether children with asthma can wear face masks. Dr. Saff treats patients with asthma and says he's been encouraging them to wear masks during the pandemic:

"Because there's no evidence that even if you have asthma wearing a mask makes the asthma worse. I guess with the exception of if somebody comes in for an acute asthma attack, sure, you're going to take the mask off."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone above the age of two wear cloth face coverings in public settings and when around people who don't live in the same household as them. As to why people don't want to follow these guidelines, Dr. Brown says it's part of being human.

"While the scientific and medical community may recommend a course of action, individuals often sometimes will say, 'I don't believe that,' Brown says. "I think that's part of the psychology of humans we tend to be skeptical. In this case, I think the skepticism is misplaced."

The CDC does recognize that some individuals may not be able to follow its mask guidelines. That includes people who work with those who are deaf or hard of hearing who rely on lip-reading and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The center does not recommend wearing surgical masks as those need to be reserved for healthcare workers.