College-supplied masks could possibly be ‘counterfeit,’ warns faculty union

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Greencare KN95 masks (left), which college officials said they provided faculty, and the masks obtained by Beacon staffers (right)

By Bailey Allen, Deputy Enterprise Editor

Emerson community members are raising concerns about the efficacy of the KN95 masks distributed by the college last week, citing a lack of proper authenticity markings.

The college announced on Jan. 17 that faculty members would be provided with two KN95 masks each, in order to comply with recent guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only three days later, though, the Emerson College Chapter of the American Association of University Professors warned faculty that the union was unable to certify the efficacy of the masks.

“An industry of counterfeit masks plagues all efforts to purchase N95, KN95, and KF94 style masks,” read the email from ECCAAUP President Russell Newman. “In general, these masks should clearly have their standard stamped upon them—for KN95 masks, one clearly wants ‘KN95’ and a ‘GB2626’ followed by either ‘2006’ or ‘2019’ clearly visible. Often, a brand is clearly indicated on the mask.”

Steve Yarbrough, a writing, literature and publishing professor at Emerson, said he was told he would receive N95 masks—which are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health—and thus, began using the college’s masks instead of his own surgical mask.

“I took the elevator in the Ansin building down with about eight or nine students,” he said. “And then I taught my graduate class in the writing of the novel that night. It’s about a three and a half hour class, so I wore that mask in the classroom.”

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Yarbrough said that Newman’s email prompted him to take a second look at the masks he received to see if they had any writing or approval stamps on them.

“In fact, the masks that we had been given were plain white masks that didn’t say anything,” Yarbrough said. “They didn’t say N95 or KN95. They didn’t have any approval number … It seems pretty clear that it’s not an N95 mask. I don’t know what it is.”

The same masks have been provided to students over the past week at the Campus Life Office and the information desk at 172 Tremont. Beacon staff obtained a pack of five from the information desk on the first floor of 172 Tremont on Jan. 25. None had any sort of certification—all were blank, white masks in the typical shape of KN95s.

According to Dr. Jamie Lichtenstein, an epidemiologist and senior affiliated faculty member at Emerson, there is a distinct way to tell if an N95, KN95, KF94, or FFP is authentic.

“With KN95 masks, the standard includes the markings that say who the manufacturer is, which is supposed to be printed on the mask,” Lichtenstein said. “So, if someone has a KN95, and it doesn’t have the manufacturer, the standard it’s tested against, and KN95 labeled on the mask, then it’s probably not a certified KN95.”

Associate Vice President of Campus Life Erik Müürisepp, who serves as the college’s “COVID Lead,” wrote in an emailed statement to The Beacon that the masks ordered by the college were made by a CDC-approved manufacturer listed on the CDC website. He added that they were purchased through a “trusted vendor” that was previously used for personal protective equipment for the Emerson community during the pandemic.

“We have no information to suggest the masks received are not what the college ordered,” he said. “However, the college has ordered another supply of KN95 masks manufactured by a different CDC-approved company for use by community members if they choose.”

According to Lichtenstein, Müürisepp claimed that the college was distributing Greencare branded KN95 respirators—tested and approved by the CDC. However, the masks obtained by The Beacon from faculty are visibly distinct from Greencare masks.

KN95 masks come from China, which has a standard but not a certification agency, Lichtenstein said; as a result, many fake KN95 masks come out of the country. The “95” indicates 95 percent filtration, but if the masks do not have any approval markings on them, they are most likely not filtering 95 percent.

“The lowest [level of filtration] I’ve seen from [false] KN95s is about 60 percent filtration, all the way up to 90 percent or 93 percent,” she said. “So they’re not meeting that 95 percent standard, but they’re coming awfully close.”

According to Lichtenstein, a typical three-layered cloth mask filters about 20 to 30 percent of the air—meaning that even if the KN95 masks the college has been giving out are indeed not genuine, they are still better to wear than cloth masks. She added that surgical masks often filter 90 to 95 percent of air, but because of how loosely surgical masks typically fit to the face, they filter about 50 percent of what one breathes in, on average.

In an email statement to The Beacon, Newman reiterated that the union leadership does not doubt the administration’s commitment to keeping the community safe. However, he said that faculty were not satisfied with the answers—or lack thereof—to their questions regarding the quality of the masks. He encouraged the union members to continue wearing their own masks.

“Upon receipt of the masks, we contacted them with some simple questions about the provenance of the masks, and we did not receive any direct answers to these questions,” Newman wrote.