Viruses and Masks, How They *REALLY* Work

The debate over masks has gone on in the US since the pandemic started. The CDC, WHO, Surgeon General have wavered back and forth, and so have medical professionals. This has led many people to not believe masks are effective at either stopping infections or preventing spread. This article will take you through the physical properties of N95 masks, surgical masks, and DIY ones, plus attributes of viruses and water droplets you may not know about. Once you understand how viruses actually travel and get a feel for viral loads, it may make sense to you that masks actually do help. In fact, if everyone wore a mask, lockdowns are probably not necessary.

You do not need a medical degree or a materials science degree to understand. All you really need is an appreciation of scale, and some basic knowledge about viruses in general. So let’s get started with viruses.

First, viruses are extremely small, they cannot be observed by the human eye. They range from 15 nanometers to 500 nanometers. SARS-2 is on the bigger side, some say 120 nanometers to 400. To “see” one is impossible. An electron microscope is necessary to bombard them with electrons which are then imaged by refraction as they bounce off them. It’s not visual at all, more of a crude image. Bacteria on the other hand, are in the micrometer range (1000 times bigger than a nanometer.) so they can be seen with very powerful optical microscopes.

Now, it is said that N95’s are not effective, because they only filter down to .3 microns, or 300 nanometers. Right there, we are on the edge of filtering the virus because they are roughly that size. An N95 mask has three layers, the middle is where the finest filter is, and it’s also electrostatically charged to help attract particles to it. So that helps with individual viruses.

But wait, we know that viruses mostly infect people through water droplets. And what would the range of those “airborne” droplets be? Well, basically anywheres from 50 microns, (not nanometers), but microns, to a whole millimeter, which is again 1000 times bigger than a micron. That is very large in comparison to .3 microns. Some say a mask is akin to building a chain link fence to stop mosquitos. But in reality it’s more like trying to fit beach balls through said fence. Of course it works! At this size of 50 microns to a millimeter, most fabrics will help you from inhaling water droplets, which is the main problem.

Yet it is a bit more complicated than that. It is true that water droplets do evaporate, and then you are left with free floating viruses. At the same time, the concentration of those free floaters is far, far, far less than thousands of them inside one water droplet. To tell the truth, we live in an ocean of viruses, the spaces all around you, inside and outside. It’s not a question of whether we breathe in viruses, we do all the time, but it’s a question of how many. So you breathe in 1 or 10 or maybe even 100 coronaviruses. It’s probably not going to infect you. It’s like growing plants, one seed isn’t enough to grow a garden. But if you get a water droplet with a viral load of 10,000 virii, that’s when you cannot help but get fully blown infected.

So we start to get a feel for how viruses work and travel. The “discovery” that SARS-2 was “airborne” shows how little doctors and researchers understand viruses in general. Real microbiology people understand that ALL viruses are airborne. They interact at a level so small that they really do float on and around air molecules, not just the masses of gases itself. It’s a level of thermodynamics that is hard to comprehend and impossible to observe, there are no models for it, it requires more of a chemical understanding. Viruses can travel from Africa to the highest level of the atmosphere back down to the South America, and it happens all the time. Why does 15 metric tons of dust from the Sahara end up in the Amazon every year, after all? That’s interesting because that is how the Amazon stays nutrient dense for plants, by the way. The world is novel to us, we understand so little about it, especially viruses because you cannot understand things you cannot see very well. Ask a particle physicist!

So again, it’s not a question of if you ingest viruses, it’s a question of degree. It is clear that aerosolized breathing of infected people is the primary route of transmission. Unquestionably, masks do stop water droplets and perhaps even free-floating viruses themselves dependent on size and how many there are on your mask. You should wear a mask, it is literally the only preventative measure shown to be effective in many countries like Japan, South Korea, and other Asian countries where cold masks are common. Washing hands is second to wearing masks, despite the common wisdom. Most “wisdom” is copying what the other bonobo does. I’m here to show you how to actually think.

Here is a diagram for scale. Note that a water droplet would be at least 3 times bigger than a hair’s diameter, and could be 300 times bigger!

I will add that fit is very important. I personally test masks by spraying isopropyl rubbing alcohol from a spray bottle in front of me and walking into it. If I can smell it, I will adjust the mask until I cannot. It is very important that you do not fiddle with it after fitment. Even opening your mouth can dislodge fit! I try to keep my mouth closed at all times, which is hard than wearing a mask, honestly. Please do not take on and off your mask. That is a good way to infect yourself. Leave it on outside, always, even in the car, until you get home. I find that the popular 8511 3M N95 mask is not very good on many levels, the edges where it is fused together makes good fit impossible. It’s rather flimsy, the bands are thin. It’s just not very good. Honeywell’s P100 is excellent, the best I’ve seen on the market. But make do with what you have.

Finally if you do have N95’s or better, you should tape over the exhaust port if you have one. Why? Well, you are potentially breathing your own infected breath on everyone, ironically enough!

So that’s it, masks and why they work very simply explained from a common sense point of view. Hope you enjoyed and share with your friends.

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