With some domestic companies switching to mass production of face masks, there is suddenly a great need for thorough and accredited quality control. That is why VITO is rapidly expanding its existing test infrastructure for the control of FFP face masks.

The events of the past weeks make it clear once more: adequate and reliable quality control for protective materials such as mouth masks is absolutely indispensable in this crisis. Moreover, this control is best organised domestically, as it is a strategic service to companies and governments.

There is currently no accredited lab in our country for quality testing of half-face masks of the types FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3. Until now, this has always taken place in foreign labs, for example in Germany,' says Gert Otten of VITO. The tests check whether a mouth mask complies with the current European standard'. This is vitally important in the corona crisis, because mouth masks can be used to protect healthcare personnel against the virus, for example. 'If a manufacturer of mouth masks gets the green light from such a lab, it receives a certificate of conformity that it can present to its customers.'

Now that some companies in Flanders have decided to focus on the mass production of mouth masks, the need for quality control and certification is suddenly high. That is why Flemish Minister for Economy Hilde Crevits contacted VITO with the question whether we could take on this role. Otten: 'As a reference lab, we have a lot of experience with measurements of aerosols and gases. So the question from the Cabinet did not come unexpectedly. Moreover, we already have the infrastructure and expertise in this field, with which we can, for example, carry out all kinds of tests on air purification techniques for companies. Checking mouth masks can be seen as an extension of this. VITO is also going to collaborate with Centexbel on this.

In order to comply with the European standard (NBN EN 149+A1 : 2009), these mouth masks must pass a wide range of tests. In the first instance, we check whether they stop the virus particles,' says Otten. We do this with particles of similar size in the form of an aerosol, and at high concentrations. The aerosol is sucked in by a respirator and exposed to a dummy head wearing a mask'. Other tests check, for example, the strength of the material, the ability to put on and take off the mouth mask correctly and its practical usability (e.g. the masks must not obstruct too much).

Due to the urgency, the European Commission has simplified its standard, focusing on the critical safety tests. VITO is doing everything possible to have its test infrastructure for face masks ready for this 'covid-19 standard' as soon as possible. 'Face masks will also be crucial during the exit strategy,' says Otten.

In a second phase, VITO also wants to use its expertise to assist users of face masks, for example with guidelines on correct use and on sterilisation and reuse.

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