When the pandemic reached New York, where Atoms is headquartered, it was one of the first and hardest hit cities in the United States. We weren’t prepared. We set out to help by giving small grants to artists and we matched it with donations to the Food Bank for New York City. We also gave away shoes to hospital workers across the city so they could have a moment of comfort throughout their long days. As the pandemic worsened, we kept trying to do more to help, which led us to our most ambitious project yet: Creating masks.
Our mask project far exceeded our expectations. We set out to get as many masks as possible to eleviate the buying pressure on PPE by selling these mask to break even. We have sold over 144,000 masks as part of a charitable initiative to donate an equal number of masks to organizations that can do good for their local communities. This includes the New York City Housing Authority, King County Emergency Management, Yakima Valley Community Foundation, and the United Sherpa Association. We even sent masks to Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp to support Black Lives Matter protesters when their masks were seized by federal agents. But donating masks to people in need won’t solve the problem if people don’t know why they should wear a mask, which ones are effective, or push ahead to phase two to raise the bar of our masks. So we sent our masks out to get tested and we want to inform you of the results as a way to be transparent with the Atoms community and provide more tools to ensure everyone can stay safe.
A lot of the confusion around mask effectiveness comes down to how people are measuring things. COVID-19, the virus itself, ranges in size from 60-140nm or 0.06 to 0.14µm also known as a micron. We sent our masks to get tested at 0.3 microns which is the gold standard for all masks to be tested at, including N95, and is the same standard for HEPA filters. Why would we ask to use a filter size if the virus itself is smaller than the standard? Viruses need a host to survive and the means of transmission whether that is from you breathing, coughing, or sneezing. The average particle size when you breathe is less than one micron while it can range from 1 to 125 microns when you cough. Our masks were able to filter out an average of 84 percent of all particles above 0.3 microns.
The next big piece of confusion was around fit. Ideally you would like a snug fit without the gaps around your nose, cheeks, or chin. This is why we created masks in a variety of sizes as opposed to a one size fits all model. We even created an XXS and and XS for kids who are suseptable to associated illnesses from COVID-19.
Moreover, getting a perfect fit doesn't mean much without being a great product. Creating a mask that is comfortable and breathable allows us to wear it all day. We tested the breathability of our masks and it scored well. We were able to retain the breathability features of a cotton mask greatly improving upon the bacterial filtration effeciency of similar masks. This was in part because of the two layers: we used the same copper yarn that is found in our shoes on the inside and an outer layer that is couated in ionized quartz. Copper is naturally antimicrobial so it is great at reducing odor and kills microbes within four hours while the ionized quartz helps prevent microbes from passing through the mask.
And finally there was a debate around social distancing. The key component around social distancing was to minimize your viral load to reduce the likelihood of transmission. Large droplets have higher concentrations of the virus compared to smaller droplets. Coming into contact with a lower viral load can allow your body to fight off the disease naturally. This is why some people can show signs of the antibodies but may have never had outward symptoms of the disease. Others are simply asymptomatic. This also ties back into the discussion around fit. Everyone should wear some kind of mask but if you have gaps the effectiveness of the mask falls regardless of the filtration rating. However the risks of gaps can be reduced if everyone was properly socially distancing themselves from others while they are talking and especially if they sneeze. The gaps become more acceptable if both people were to be wearing masks.