OHIO | Ohio State researching, testing polymer face masks to protect against COVID-19

The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES)

While many people are encouraged and, in some cases, mandated to wear face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there are some complaints that have become a common refrain: the mask doesn’t fit correctly, it’s uncomfortable, it’s too hot, or the mask is hard to breathe through.

However, a material scientist at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) is working to change that.

Judit Puskas is in the final stages of developing a new polymer face mask that she expects will be more effective in the fight against COVID-19. Puskas, who is a Distinguished Professor in polymer science in the CFAES Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, has a provisional patent application pending for the mask she is developing.

She’s working with the Mayo Clinic to create and test the mask to meet the same safety and efficacy standards of an N95mask, but with more comfort and usability for the wearers. Puskas’ mask is made of a nonwoven fabric comprised of biocompatible rubber composite formed into a fiber mat that can be used to create personal protective equipment including face masks.

The goal, she said, is to offer alternatives to the current market of N95 masks that can be used by workers in a wider variety of conditions and situations.

“The current N95 masks protect against the virus, but most people say the masks aren’t comfortable and aren’t easily breathable,” Puskas said. “There are other polymer fiber mats used in N95-equivalent masks, but they are based on rigid plastics and don’t offer much flexibility.

“The material I’ve developed is a flexible, breathable rubber, that can be made into comfortable-fitting masks. Additionally, it’s water repellant, doesn’t allow sneeze particles through, nor will it let moisture build up on the mask from breathing. This rubber can also be used in hot, humid conditions as well as in a freezer, can be easily sterilized in water-based solutions, and is recyclable for multiple reuse.”

It’s for those reasons that Puskas’ masks, once completed, will be tested by more than 100 workers in five meat processing plants across Ohio to gauge the masks’ effectiveness for agricultural workers in hot, humid conditions.

CFAES researchers including Lyda Garcia, an assistant professor of meat science, Mary Rodriguez, assistant professor of community leadership, and Joy Rumble, assistant professor of agricultural communication, are working with meat processors statewide to determine the barriers workers face when considering masks as personal protective equipment to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19.

The team is also researching workers’ perceptions about wearing personal protective equipment to better understand why some choose not to wear it. The team’s goal is to develop strategies to get more workers to change their perception of masks and to choose to wear them, Rodriguez said.

This comes as meat packing plants nationwide are continuing to see spikes in COVID-19 infections. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there have been some 20,400 COVID-19 infections across 216 meat packing plants in 33 states, with at least 74 deaths, according to reporting by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the meat and poultry processing industry, which is an essential component of the U.S. food infrastructure, employs approximately 500,000 people nationwide, many of whom work in close proximity to other workers, often in hot, humid conditions.

Ohio meat processors reached out to Garcia, who is also an Ohio State University Extension meat science specialist, and her team for help in determining solutions for personal protective equipment, including understanding what works and how to encourage workers to wear personal protective equipment such as face masks, Garcia said. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of CFAES.

Garcia said the conversations with meat processors helped her team realize that understanding employee behavior and attitudes about wearing personal protective equipment such as masks would be valuable in helping Puskas modify and adjust her mask design.

“Understanding employee behavior, attitudes, and leadership is critical when designing personal protective equipment,” she said. “The most common complaint among workers is that masks are uncomfortable, tend to move and slip off, and they have to keep adjusting them.

“Another drawback is that workers say it’s difficult to breathe in masks in hot, humid conditions while constantly moving, and they don’t like breathing in their own carbon dioxide that is trapped in the masks in those conditions.”

Additionally, Garcia said, with the fans and the air conditioning noise in the plants, workers say wearing masks makes it harder to communicate with each other, which could be a safety issue considering the sharp knives and tools they use.

“Also, these workers are on their feet eight hours a day, wearing hair nets, safety glasses, with some men having long beards, then you add a mask and you can see where things can become more complicated fast on top of just wearing the mask,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s about working with employees to encourage them to wear personal protective equipment.

“Not only will it serve to protect the food, but it will help keep the employees safe and healthy, and in turn, will keep them working to provide a wholesome, sound, high-quality product.”

That’s one of many reasons why Puskas was compelled to develop a mask using the biocompatible rubber composite fiber mat she created as a way to add comfort, flexibility, and breathability to the N95 mask market.

Since 2004, Puskas has helped develop polymer-based materials and coatings for use in medical devices and other industries. She received funding from the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health in 2010 to further develop the technology to create a safer breast implant, one that is less likely to leak silicone. This polymer material also reduces the risk of inflammation in the tissue surrounding the implant, which often leads to painful tissue contraction and rupture of the implant.

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States, Puskas wanted to do whatever she could to help lessen the spread of the virus.

“When medical experts first advocated that people wear masks to flatten the curve and lessen the spread of COVID-19, I immediately knew that my polymer material would be good for masks,” she said. “My polymers have already been used in cardiovascular stents that have been used in more than 6 million patients.

“It’s a very good feeling when you do research and it ends up saving people’s lives.”

Those wishing to support Puskas’ research can donate to the CFAES Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering Innovation Fund for Bio-Based Polymers (#316979) or contact the CFAES Office of Advancement at 614-292-0473.

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