Some facemasks containing carbon in the form of graphene could pose a health risk, according to early research. France is now warning hospital managements against the use of some of the beak-like FFP2 masks which contain this material in their filters.
The material, a form of carbon widely used in the manufacture of electronic products, is reported to have antiviral and antibacterial properties and has been used in some facemask filters.
However, preliminary research conducted on animals suggests the inhalation of graphene particles could, in some cases, cause lung problems - although the risk to humans is still unclear.
A note addressed to the directors of French hospitals likely to have been supplied with facemasks containing "biomass graphene" and published on the website of the ANSM (the French national agency on the safety of medical products) asks them to stop using the masks as a precautionary measure, until further studies are carried out.
The masks in question are part of the stock procured by the government and made by the Chinese manufacturers Shandong Shengquan New Materials.
More than 16 million distributed
Another letter from the Regional Health Authorities Agency to hospital managers, seen by Mediapart news website, states that "at this stage, 60.5 million FFP2 masks, with the CE mark, (denoting that they meet EU standards) could potentially contain graphene. 16.9 million of these were distributed in 2020," an estimated 28 percent of the stocks bought and distributed to French medical, health or social establishments.
Contacted by Mediapart, Public Health France stated that the procurement order concerned dated from April 2020 "at the time of massive purchasing amid a shortage of masks".
PHF said there was no mention by the Chinese manufacturer of any impact on organs, which might have caused authorities to rule out their purchase, although the presence of "biomass graphene" was clearly labelled.
In April, the Canadian health ministry suspended the use of the masks, pending a proper risk assessment, citing a possible link to breathing difficulties.
The Canadian health authority, Health Canada, said its "preliminary assessment of available research identified that inhaled graphene particles had some potential to cause early lung toxicity in animals".
Its statement added that "the potential for people to inhale graphene particles from face masks and the related health risks are not yet known and may vary based on mask design."
The Canadian government also ordered the withdrawal of certain models from the Canadian market.
Anses, the agency which deals with food and health security in France, will now evaluate whether or not the masks are safe for use.