Background: Historically, surgical masks have been worn to protect patients from being infected by large, pathogen-containing aerosol droplets emitted by health care personnel. Today, emphasis has shifted from solely protecting the patient to protecting the health care worker as well. As a result of new procedures used in operating rooms and clinical areas, aerosolized hazardous agents in the submicrometer size range are being produced, posing a potential threat to health care workers.
Methods: Eight surgical masks were tested for aerosol particle penetration through their filter media and through induced face-seal leaks.
Results: The percentage of filter penetration ranged from 20% to nearly 100% for submicrometer-sized particles. In comparison, a dust-mist-fume respirator used in industrial settings had significantly less penetration through its filter medium. When the surgical masks had artificially induced face-seal leaks, the concentration of submicrometer-sized particles inside the mask increased slightly; in contrast, the more protective dust-mist-fume respirator showed a fourfold increase in aerosol penetration into the mask with an artificial leak 4 mm in diameter.
Conclusion: We conclude that the protection provided by surgical masks may be insufficient in environments containing potentially hazardous submicrometer-sized aerosols.