The Belgian government has told people to stop wearing the cloth masks they distributed for free last summer “as a precaution” following the leak of a confidential report from Sciensano, the Belgian Institute for Public Health, that said they may be toxic.
The report, which the government stressed is only the first results of the first phase of a study, found that the masks contain nanoparticles of silver and titanium dioxide that when inhaled could damage the respiratory tract.
15 million of the masks were ordered and they were handed out to pharmacies across the country, but now Belgium’s Minister of Health Frank Vandenbroucke has asked pharmacists to stop using and distributing them “pending further investigation,” according to De Standaard.
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“Although no health risk has been demonstrated, we recommend that anyone who received such a mask at the time for free through the pharmacy should not use it for the time being, as a precaution,” said Vandenbroucke.
The Health Council said that the use of the fabric masks provided is not recommended unless they are the “only available means of prevention.”
Titanium dioxide was banned from food products last year in France, and scientists are still debating how harmful the particles are. Its use in the cloth face masks is to whiten the fabric as a dye, while the silver is intended to provide an antibacterial effect.
“The manufacturer may have emphasized the advantages of those nanoparticles, but not the disadvantages. They can also penetrate the deep airways and cause damage there,” toxicologist Jan Tytgat (KU Leuven) told De Standaard. “Those particles are more common in textile products and they are not prohibited by European regulations, but with the mouth masks they are in a place where we constantly breathe in and out. That’s different from being in a raincoat or boots.”
The company that provided the masks is Avrox, which while based in Luxembourg, manufactured the cloth masks in Asia.
There were warning signs regarding their product from the get-go, including that wearers were told not to wash the mask at 60 degrees in order to avoid damaging the antibacterial layer.
Three Belgian industry federations also warned about this issue and the possible consequences in a joint press release last summer.
Both Avrox and the government maintained that there were no problems.
“All those questions were asked at the end of June,” MP Michael Freilich said. “Why were they not taken seriously by De Block and then Minister of Defense Philippe Goffin? And why is action only now being taken? This is culpable negligence.”
The purchase of the masks themselves, which involved a €40 million agreement, is also being investigated for potential fraud because two of the people involved are said to personally know each other very well.