Mask Wearing prompts experiment

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By Gordon Allison | Technical Writer

Allison used a pulse oximeter for this experiment.

ARAPAHOE – Jeff of The County Compass newspaper recently asked me to personally conduct a test of masks which are used these days to prevent spread of the China Virus pandemic. As a former Magnavox, Motorola and RCA electrical engineer, I typically approach this kind of assignment with care and precision, but I should emphasize this was not a scientific experiment conducted under controlled conditions. What we hoped to determine was whether or not the typical mask impedes the body’s ability to absorb sufficient oxygen.

Before putting my mask on, I was resting on the couch to stabilize my breathing and heart rate. To determine oxygen levels, I used what is known as a pulse oximeter on my left forefinger. As we all know, the left side of the human body has the shortest arterial distance from the heart, so any detected changes would show up more rapidly on the left side. I could go into quite a bit of detail about how these devices actually work, but suffice it to say that pulse oximeter science is a tested and proven medical concept.

At this point, I should mention that I am a senior citizen (well into my 70s) and my health could be better.  I am familiar with oxygen levels, because I am anemic and must utilize oxygen when I travel by commercial aircraft or travel over 1,200 feet above sea level.

My initial oxygen reading while resting on the couch without a mask ran at 94% and my heart rate was 70.5 beats per minute (bpm). Monday beginning at 6:02 pm, I tested the blue/white commercially available medical mask first. The seal on this mask is basically non-existent! This test ran for a total of 37 minutes. For four minutes, my readings remained at 94% oxygen and pulse of 70 bpm. So far, so good. At 6:24 pm, the oxygen level stayed at 94%, but my heart rate increased a bit to 74 bpm. At 6:39 with the mask still on, the oxygen level went up to 97% and the heart rate dropped to 66 bpm. My explanation for the higher oxygen level and the lower heart rate is that I was more rested, having not gotten up from the couch. Resting naturally raises my oxygen level and lowers my heart rate, due to lack of exertion. One thing for sure – this mask was damp from the halfway point to the end and my glasses were fogged the entire time  NOT PLEASANT!

The second test used an N95 mask manufactured by 3M. The fit was very good! The elastic straps placed on the upper back of the head and low around the neck prevent the mask from sliding down the face. There is a narrow foam strip on the inside of the exterior metal nosepiece that contributed to the mask staying in place on the bridge of my nose.  I tightened the bottom strap to get a very good fit. This type of mask did not fog my glasses at all during the whole time! The total run time for this second test was 30 minutes. My oxygen level starting point was 95% and pulse of 68 bpm before and after the mask was applied.  The test values averaged 95.8% oxygen level and pulse of 65.9 bpm over the total number of readings.  Much like the blue/white mask, the N95 mask became noticeably damp at the 9-minute mark and stayed that way to the end of the test.

Let’s mention the cloth masks! This is a big bag of worms.  I don’t know what materials are in my cloth mask for the two layers I can see. Some masks have copper in them! Those have some ability to kill the China virus before it leaves the mask – going out into the atmosphere around your face – as well as killing the virus on its way into your mouth and nose from the outside. My best guess is that any cloth mask is less effective than the N95.

Also note that the term “oxygen level” is really what is known as SpO2 – the ‘saturation level of peripheral oxygen.’  The readings are normalized so that the reported percentage is relevant to wherever the person may be. Thus, 97% oxygen at sea level would be a higher quantity of oxygen than a 97% level taken at 5,000 feet above sea level (like in Denver, where I once lived).

A little more information.  A very healthy person, think astronaut, will have a heart rate of around 52 beats per minute!  I’d guess his SpO2 level would be very close to 99%.  My heart rate usually runs around 63 to 65 bpm (pretty doggone good for my age). My SpO2 level usually runs around 96%; not bad for someone with anemia.  My wife Patty has a higher heart rate, mid 80s, but she has the same SpO2 level as mine.

When people have obstructive sleep apnea, the heart receives a signal to raise its  rate (possibly to 140 to 160 bpm) to get more oxygen into the body. Often, this causes heart failure and this is why a lot of people die “peacefully” in their sleep.  In my own sleep studies, my heart rate went to 141 beats per minute! – while my SpO2 level dropped to 78% (this happened twice at National Jewish Hospital, a nationally recognized heart and lung hospital in Colorado).  One Sunday in Colorado, I suffered an allergic reaction to medication and passed out.  I have a nurse’s verification from that incident that my pulse rate hit 160 bpm!

My recent research has verified my belief that the use of a pulse oximeter is an excellent metric for diagnosis of China virus! Bottom line for this experiment? Your heart rate might go up a bit when wearing a mask, as the human body finds a way to pull in sufficient oxygen!  But wearing a mask should not be detrimental!

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