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Michelle S M Rhee 1Carin D Lindquist 1Matthew T Silvestrini 1Amanda C Chan 2Jonathan J Y Ong 2Vijay K Sharma 3Affiliations expand

Free PMC article


Background and purpose: COVID-19 pandemic led to wide-spread use of face-masks, respirators and other personal protective equipment (PPE) by healthcare workers. Various symptoms attributed to the use of PPE are believed to be, at least in part, due to elevated carbon-dioxide (CO2) levels. We evaluated concentrations of CO2 under various PPE.

Methods: In a prospective observational study on healthy volunteers, CO2 levels were measured during regular breathing while donning 1) no mask, 2) JustAirĀ® powered air purifying respirator (PAPR), 3) KN95 respirator, and 4) valved-respirator. Serial CO2 measurements were taken with a nasal canula at a frequency of 1-Hz for 15-min for each PPE configuration to evaluate whether National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) limits were breached.

Results: The study included 11 healthy volunteers, median age 32 years (range 16-54) and 6 (55%) men. Percent mean (SD) changes in CO2 values for no mask, JustAirĀ® PAPR, KN95 respirator and valve respirator were 0.26 (0.12), 0.59 (0.097), 2.6 (0.14) and 2.4 (0.59), respectively. Use of face masks (KN95 and valved-respirator) resulted in significant increases in CO2 concentrations, which exceeded the 8-h NIOSH exposure threshold limit value-weighted average (TLV-TWA). However, the increases in CO2 concentrations did not breach short-term (15-min) limits. Importantly, these levels were considerably lower than the long-term (8-h) NIOSH limits during donning JustAirĀ® PAPR. There was a statistically significant difference between all pairs (p < 0.0001, except KN95 and valved-respirator (p = 0.25). However, whether increase in CO2 levels are clinically significant remains debatable.

Conclusion: Although, significant increase in CO2 concentrations are noted with routinely used face-masks, the levels still remain within the NIOSH limits for short-term use. Therefore, there should not be a concern in their regular day-to-day use for healthcare providers. The clinical implications of elevated CO2 levels with long-term use of face masks needs further studies. Use of PAPR prevents relative hypercapnoea. However, whether PAPR should be advocated for healthcare workers requiring PPE for extended hours needs to evaluated in further studies.

Keywords: Carbon dioxide (CO2); Face mask; N95; Personal protective equipment (PPE); Powered air purifying respirator (PAPR); Respirator.

Conflict of interest statement

None of the authors declare any competing interests associated with this manuscript.

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