Bay County lab tests safety of masks from around the country

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PANAMA CITY BEACH — As more establishments require masks inside and local government leaders entertain the possibility of mask-mandates, the issue remains polarizing.

The Florida Department of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control have said research shows masks help to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, many worry about how safe it is to wear a mask all the time.

One local group of scientists and engineers at ATOR Labs on Back Beach Road is putting masks to the test, researching the safety of various types of masks people are wearing using a specialized machine they built. 

“It’s a pretty unique machine and we’re glad to share it with everyone,” said Frank Hernandez, Product Development Director at ATOR Labs.

The machine is called an automated-breathing metabolic simulator; it was invented by ATOR Labs Founder, David Cowgill and built by his team. It breathes just like a human would, consuming oxygen and exhaling CO2 and moisture.

Hernandez said they’ve only made five of these machines in total; one of them is used by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the CDC. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, the team at ATOR Labs had an idea.

“We knew there was a need out there for people that just wanted to make something, wanted to contribute,” said Hernandez.

He’s talking about home-made masks. He said they’ve seen it all, from cloth masks to masks made out of old food containers. The lab’s founders reached out to blogs and other sites saying they would use their machine to test those masks for free, making sure they’re safe for every-day use. “That allows us to be able to look at different types of masks, and determine to what extent are the CO2 levels that a person breathing in would be exposed to,” said Sieggy Bennicoff-Yundt, the Quality Director at ATOR Labs.

After reaching out for initial interest, they said the masks came pouring in. To date, they’ve run close to 200 tests on different masks, sent in from all over the country. 

“We’ve pretty much run the gamut of different things that you can strap onto your face and test,” Hernandez said.

They’ve even tested masks from MIT, Stanford, Harvard and Johns Hopkins facilities.

“People want to make sure what they’re making is safe,” Hernandez said. “We allow for them to have that.”

They said of all the masks they’ve tested, N-95’s do one of the best jobs at filtering out CO2 and protecting the wearer from the virus, but if you can’t get one, some of the simpler or homemade masks are better than nothing. However, they said those need to be washed on a regular basis since the particulates breathed out get trapped in the fabric, making CO2 ventilation difficult.

“We’ve seen dangerous levels of carbon dioxide that hides in the inner layers between the masks,” said Cowgill.

When it comes to mask-wearing, the team said it’s important to take breaks when it’s safe to do so to allow the body to take in oxygen and exhale CO2 freely.

They said the goal is to help keep people safe as they wear masks to stop the spread, as well as help people better understand the masks they’re wearing.

“Just increasing the amount of public education on what is safe, what’s not safe, that would be a tremendous end result for us,” said Bennicoff-Yundt.

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