A few days ago, UFC-Que choisir said surgical facemasks could be washed and reused up to ten times. An assertion supported by searchers, behind new processes enabling to reuse these masks. An invention that will not be used in France as a law prohibits to apply the results of this research.
Are surgical face masks reusable or not? Technically they are. According to the UFC’s and doctors’ recommendations, you are still protected if you wear the same masks several times. Legally-speaking, surgical facemasks cannot be worn for over four hours. Because of the Public Health regulations – presenting surgical facemasks as a disposable medical device – you must throw it once it comes to its determined lifespan.
These regulations have not been designed for the situations we are currently experiencing, they have been written to protect patients and doctors in the medical environment, where contamination risks are high. The Health general management – quoted by Le Monde– explains “no legal text sets limits on the reutilization of medical face masks for the general public”; we then have to leave it to manufacturers’ recommendations.
Surgical facemasks are then submitted to a circular from 1986 recommending “destruction after use and non-re-sterilization of non-reusable medical-surgical gear”.
This is the only legal barrier that now prevents reusing these masks. Searchers were developing an experiment proving the reliability of washed surgical facemasks. The process has been stopped by the French Agency for the Safety of Health Products (ANSM) that called upon the decree from August 30, 2010 stipulating that “disposable medical devices are not to be reused”. Deception for Philippe Cinquin, scientific coordinator of Grenoble university hospital investigation center and one of the main instigators of the project, and for his team.
Since March, these limited lifespan masks have dramatically increased waste in France. As they cannot be reused, they are thrown to waste, or even worse, on sidewalks or sewers. Masks are made of several layers of polypropylene, a sort of plastic. This waste is then a new source of pollution.
Even worse, they are not easy to be recyclable. So far, no large-scale recycling solution has been found. In April 2020, the Haut Conseil de la Santé Publique released a notice recommending “not to undertake recycling processes for these masks (…) amid the pandemic in the health and medico-social sector because of the decrease of the pressure in supply and the lack of complete sterilization process validated”.
French Agency for Food, Environmental and occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) director and former director general for Research and Innovation Roger Genet ultimately says to Le Monde: “Today, there is no technical barrier to reuse surgical masks, but legal restrictions shall be lifted”.