Revealed: Disturbing truth about face masks for sale online

In the wake of Australia’s extreme bushfires and the coronavirus crisis, more people have been seen donning face masks as they go about their daily activities.

But the protective shields are not always what they seem, Sydney mum Kate Cole has warned. 

Ms Cole, an occupational hygienist who specialises in work and health safety surrounding silica dust and asbestos, is now taking it upon herself to question online companies claiming to sell P2 or N95 certified masks to worried residents. 

P2 masks filter 94 per cent of particles in the atmosphere. N95 masks filter 95 per cent.

Ms Cole said she stumbled across the problem two weeks ago after spotting a Smoggys billboard promoting decorated P2 face masks to raise money for the Rural Fire Service.

Ms Cole poses with a series of approved P2 respirators. Source: Kate Cole

The mum of three immediately noticed the masks pictured on the advertisement did not appear to have a P2 certification number and flagged it with Smoggys’ owners. 

She said they responded with shock and had believed the masks being provided were certified.

“They were actually brilliant and thanked me for raising the issue. A week later they contacted their customers and shut up shop,” Ms Cole said. 

But Smoggys is just the tip of the iceberg, she told Yahoo News Australia.

“I did some Googling and looked on Facebook, eBay and Amazon. It was overwhelming the amount of companies that were claiming to sell P2 or N95 masks.”

Out of all the product results on Amazon, she said more than 40 per cent did not appear to carry the correct certification number. 

Ms Cole contacted several of the companies and of those, three removed P2 or N95 from their online descriptions.

Smoggys is no longer selling their masks after being contacted by Ms Cole. Source: Kate Cole

The companies appear to have purchased the masks from overseas suppliers who claimed they had passed P2 tests, but she suggested the retailers may not have made independent inquiries. 

Numerous other companies didn’t bother to respond, Ms Cole said. 

Following her investigation, Ms Cole took to Facebook to warn others to always check for certification.

P2 masks are required to have the AS1716 certification number printed on the front, which should make it easier for shoppers to spot a fake.

Ms Cole recommended purchasing P2 masks from hardware shops, including Bunnings and Mitre 10.

Facebook users thanked the Sydney mum for bringing the issue to their attention.

“Thanks Kate for sharing this, this is really helpful info. I had no idea there was a certification for these masks,” one woman wrote.

Smoggys told Yahoo News Australia they “were super appreciative of Kate and all that she did to help”.

“Despite bringing our orders to a halt, we are still on track to giving a sizeable donation to the RFS,” a spokesperson for the organisation said.

All approved masks must feature the AS1716 code on the front. Source: Kate Cole

What are P2/N95 masks?

P2 masks are often referred to interchangeably with N95 masks, which are 95 per cent efficient, according to Jane Whitelaw, an expert in respiratory protection at the University of Wollongong who sits on the Standards Australia technical committee.

They differ from medical masks, which aren’t tight-fitting and allow particles to be inhaled and exhaled around the edges.

“The tests and certification are not exactly the same, but most respirator manufacturers make models for both markets so they usually meet both sets of tests,” Ms Whitelaw said.

In the US, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health approves respirators based on tests of their filtration capability against standardised test particles believed to be the most penetrating size – those most likely to pass through the filter.

In Australia, this is completed by Standards Australia, which evaluates a mask’s material, weight, fit and comfort, inward leakage, the strength of straps, inhalation and exhalation breathing resistance, and filtering efficiency.

While P2 and N95 masks have been recommended for firefighters or those living in bushfire areas, health officials have said they are not necessary for residents in Australia concerned about coronavirus.

Do you have a story tip? Email: newsroomau@yahoonews.com.

You can also follow us on FacebookInstagram and Twitter and download the Yahoo News app from the App Store or Google Play.