For respiratory protection you will find masks of the categories FFP2 and FFP3 (higher protection). These masks were developed for occupational health and safety. They have been used in working environments for a long time, while the general public became aware of them due to the Corona crisis since 2020.
What do the categories mean for respiratory protection?
The most important question currently being asked (as of May 2020) is about the safety provided by individual mask categories. Therefore, we want to address this issue right at the beginning. Important to know: There are differences in the designations of masks that have nothing to do with their filtering capability but with the approval process in individual countries. Nevertheless, the performance characteristics can be very similar. Legal standards for filtering masks are based on certain test methods, which are often identical and sometimes slightly different. An important term here is the so-called filtering efficiency. This describes the percentage of particles that are filtered out of the air. Masks that are listed in Europe, but also in Brazil, under the category FFP2 have a filter efficiency of 95 %. In China these masks are called KN95 or KP95, in Australia/New Zealand P2, in Japan DL2 or DS2, in Korea 1st class, in India BIS P2 and in the USA N95, R95 or P95. If you wear a mask of the KN 95 category or also N95 (both available in this country), you are practically protected in the same way as with the FFP2 variant. These masks protect against dust particles, smoke and aerosols, and therefore also against corona in the air we breathe. In Europe, they are subject to EN 149:2001+A1:2009. At the workplace, they are used according to DGUV 112-190 at pollutant concentrations that can exceed the workplace limit value (AGW) up to tenfold. In contrast, masks of category FFP3 are sufficient for pollutant concentrations that can reach 30 times the occupational exposure limit. They are 99 % leak-proof. This is a laboratory test value that indicates the probability that no pollutants will pass through the mask. The Robert Koch Institute recommends both types of masks when used in environments that may be highly contaminated with viruses, such as in hospitals and nursing homes when providing direct patient care. Due to the higher protective effect, respiratory protection of the FFP3 category is regularly somewhat more expensive than FFP2. However, prices also vary from supplier to supplier.
What are respirators good for when there is a threat from viruses?
The masks keep viruses out just as they filter chemical contaminants, smoke or dust. Of course, they do not provide absolute protection, nor have they ever been claimed to do so. But their protection is very high, far exceeding that provided by the generally prescribed hygiene mouth protection. When there is a public health event, wearing the respirators of these classes also becomes attractive to the majority of the population. This is the case in the corona crisis, but also in forest fires or smog hazards. Otherwise, these respirators are used for occupational safety. When used correctly, they protect their wearers from airborne particles such as hazardous dust, and fine dust, from mist, vapours and pollen. They keep out particles in the micrometre range. This is achieved by their filter material and their structure, which seals the mask to the face. If you wear a respirator for health reasons, you should always make sure it is a certified product. Some non-certified respirators look very similar to certified masks, but do not offer nearly the same protection. Certified masks, of course, also protect the wearer's environment in case the environment itself is infected. At the same time, it should be noted that respirators are only a supplement to other safety measures. In relation to the corona crisis this means: The measures of social distancing and personal hygiene (sufficient hand washing) must of course be observed in addition. Local and national health authorities always point out that one should keep one's distance from the source of danger in order to avoid exposure to hazardous substances.
The difference between respirators and surgical masks or conventional mouthguards.
It is undoubtedly true that the population wears a mouthguard in the corona crisis. It protects better than no mouthguard. In principle, of course, it serves to prevent the spread of aerosol (breathable air) contaminated with viruses from the wearer. With the mouthguard, we therefore primarily prevent other people from infecting us if we should be infected. This is all the more important because the corona infection can be asymptomatic or the carrier does not experience any symptoms during the incubation period, i.e. is unaware of his infection, but is most contagious shortly before the first symptoms appear (directly the day before). To some extent, a simple mouth-nose covering also protects its wearer, but this protection is relatively low. The respirators presented here, on the other hand, also protect their wearers. They are therefore strongly recommended for people working in hazardous areas (see above).