The other morning while preparing a V60, I noticed that the filter paper absorbed between 3-6g of water (3-6ml) each time I rinsed the filter before making a new coffee. My mind wandered to re-hydrating space food and the importance of water in the texture of the food we eat (and coffee we drink). And then I was reminded of a question I had been asked during these Covid-19 times: would a face mask that is damp work better, or worse, than a dry one for reducing the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19?
The answer did not seem obvious. On the one hand, when we wet the paper filter while brewing coffee, the fibres within the paper swell and reduce the pore size of the filter. It seems likely that cotton fibres in a mask would behave similarly. This would have the effect of slowing and reducing the transmission of particulates through the mask. But on the other hand, we’re not thinking about particulates but about small amounts of viral material hosted in water droplets that are somehow exhaled. I decided on the “no idea” response at the time and put the question aside. Until the other morning while preparing coffee.
Unsurprisingly this question, and many like it are now the subject of intense research. I say unsurprisingly because a few years ago a new family of superconductors was discovered with (relatively) very high transition temperatures*. I was on holiday at the time but when I returned, it was to a large number of emails and ideas for experiments on these new materials that became known as the iron based superconductors. We had our first paper on these materials within a couple of months which, like all papers on this at the time, was uploaded, without peer review, to a pre-print server. Eventually most of the papers on the pre-print server got published in peer-reviewed journals, but this process was slow because it relied (and still does) on other scientists reading and taking the time to carefully respond to the points in your manuscript, then for you to address these points, for them to read it again and then, hopefully, ok the paper for publication. If you wanted to get the paper out and for a discussion to start, it had to be uploaded to the pre-print server.
Clearly, in order to keep up with scientists worldwide, we were looking at the pre-print server every morning looking for new ideas and new observations (and if anyone had done the same as we were trying to do at that precise moment but ‘beaten’ us to it). We had to be careful while assessing the claims in the pre-print papers. Some of the pre-prints were eventually withdrawn as they had made overblown claims (admittedly very few). Many were revised and had their claims either subtly altered or brought down a bit from hyperbole before being published in the journals. But none of this mattered to the world outside the lab because while exciting to us, and while the temperature of the transition was, from a physics perspective, very high, for the general public it would have been hard to get excited about materials that went superconducting below about 50 K or, in more common units, -223 C.
This side-story matters because, like our superconductors, the pandemic is the subject of intense research with much of it being uploaded to pre-print servers first so that scientists world wide can get into a conversation about the latest results. However, unlike our superconductors, the general public cares a great deal about a pandemic that is affecting us all and about the scientific rationale for measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing etc. While it is tempting to read the pre-prints, as I am not working in the field, it is not possible for me to read the papers on pre-print servers and be able to have a good guess as to whether the claims are reasonable, over blown or under-evidenced. So, I try to rely only on papers that are past the point of peer review and published in scientific journals. There is something very disheartening about reading an interesting newspaper report that near the end says “the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed…”. Will the interesting study hold up? It is difficult, from outside the research area, to tell.
However, we need to get back to the masks and the filters. Was there a study, in the peer-reviewed and published literature, that looked at whether moistened masks performed better than non-moistened masks?
In fact, there is a lot of research on the effectiveness of masks. The research includes computer modelling, imaging of real people breathing/talking/coughing with and without masks and more reproducible tests where the mask material is tested using the conditions of a simulated sneeze. This last study also tested whether that simulated sneeze is contained better by a cloth mask (with filtration down to PM 2.5) or a damp cloth mask (with the same nominal filtration).
The different types of research are needed because they answer different types of question. How effective each type of mask is will depend on the type of material (tested with the simulated sneeze) and the way that people wear them (tested by the imaging of people wearing masks). While the computer modelling suggests what may happen in more ‘real life’ environments such as being outdoors with a gentle wind blowing.
In terms of the initial question about the damp masks, it turns out that the fact that the fibres in the mask swell with the water does indeed help reduce the droplet transmission through the mask material. But the authors caution that if the mask is worn for a longer period of time, the damp mask may get saturated with virus loaded droplets and so the mask would need to be changed (and refreshed with fresh water) frequently in order for it to be effective against transmission of the virus loaded droplets. (It’s also noteworthy that the effect of the damp mask was only tested for one mask type that may not be typical of what the general public wears). However, for most of us it would not be practical anyway to wear a damp mask. Moreover, if we were having to change the mask frequently, it may not be helpful for us at all. But the good news is that the imaging studies show that we don’t have to do either.
A fantastic report in Scientific Advances showed two things. First, that most masks that we wear properly give a significant benefit for the people around us. And secondly, they provided an experimental set up that can easily and relatively cheaply be replicated by people with a little technical knowledge and a mobile phone. However, given that ‘relatively cheaply’ still means about $200, I’ll take their results instead, if you don’t mind spending the money on a laser and some lenses (or happen to have some lying around), please do let me know how you get on.
The authors took several of the types of face mask being worn by the public and imaged the droplets coming from a person speaking through each of them. The masks tested included surgical masks, N95 masks, and hand-made masks with 2-layers of cotton or 2-layers of cotton with an extra polypropylene layer in the middle. All of these masks reduced the droplets transmitted through the mask significantly. Indeed, relative to no-mask, some home-made multiple cotton layer masks cut the droplets by nearly a factor of 10. The exceptions were bandanas and neck gaiters. The bandanas that were tested only cut the droplets getting through by a factor of 2, but the gaiters were worse. Speaking through the neck gaiter that they tested, the authors observed that the number of droplets getting through the gaiter actually increased relative to speaking wearing no mask. While this seems counter-intuitive, they suggested that this was likely because the gaiter was breaking up the larger droplets into multiple smaller droplets and so their equipment, which just measured the number of droplets, measured an increase relative to someone wearing no mask.
The problem here of course is, as the computer simulations showed, smaller droplets stay in the air for longer, larger droplets tend to fall with gravity. Something else that we know by thinking about our coffee.
So the final conclusion? Yes, it is possible that a damp mask may be better than a dry one though there are caveats on that result. But in actual fact, most masks that we wear in an indoor environment will help to protect other people (though maybe be careful with the gaiter materials). And a second conclusion? Perhaps preparing a coffee should be a time of escape from the concerns of coronavirus and really, next time, I should just enjoy the moment and think about re-hydrating space food.
*Actually, the iron-based superconductors had been discovered a couple of years previous to the excitement. But at that point, the reported transition temperatures were low enough that even the superconducting field was curious but not excited.