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The Question: Can N95 face masks filter out benzopyrene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or formaldehyde?

Background: Pan-frying, stir-frying, and deep-frying typically involve heating oil to a high temperature, resulting in a great amount of smoke [1]. According to previous reports [2–5], various kinds of mutagens and human carcinogens-such as benzopyrene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and formaldehyde-could be released from oil into cooking oil fumes, which are then inhaled by the cook.

Some now start wearing N95 face masks during pan/stir/deep frying, in hope to reduce the inhalation of those harmful particles. Now, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), N95 masks filter out contaminants like dusts, mists and fumes. The minimum size of .3 microns of particulates and large droplets won’t pass through the barrier. The question is: would it also filter out the benzopyrenes, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and the formaldehydes? The New York State Department of Health claims that N95 masks do not protect you against chemical vapors, gases, carbon monoxide, gasoline, asbestos, lead or low oxygen environments, but that was not very helpful. Any clarification would be greatly appreciated.

References:

  1. Chunyan Wang, Lifang Liu, Xiaoli Liu, Wenjun Chen, Guoping He, Mechanisms of Lung Cancer Caused By Cooking Fumes Exposure: A Minor Review, Chinese Medical Sciences Journal, Volume 32, Issue 3, 2017, Pages 193-197, ISSN 1001-9294, https://doi.org/10.24920/J1001-9294.2017.026.
  2. Chiang, T. A. et al. Mutagenicity and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon content of fumes from heated cooking oils produced in Taiwan. Mutation Research-Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis 381, 157–161, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0027-5107(97)00163-2 (1997).
  3. Chen, J. W., Wang, S. L., Hsieh, D. P. H., Yang, H. H. & Lee, H. L. Carcinogenic potencies of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons for back-door neighbors of restaurants with cooking emissions. Science of the Total Environment 417, 68–75, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2011.12.012 (2012).
  4. Qu, Y. H. et al. Genotoxicity of heated cooking oil vapors. Mutat Res 298, 105–111, https://doi.org/10.1016/0165-1218(92)90035-X (1992).
  5. Thiebaud, H. P., Knize, M. G., Kuzmicky, P. A., Hsieh, D. P. & Felton, J. S. Airborne mutagens produced by frying beef, pork and a soy-based food. Food and Chemical Toxicology 33, 821–828, https://doi.org/10.1016/0278-6915(95)00057-9 (1995).
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    I am confused. You ask about the efficacy of N95 masks against carcinogenics which could be released from oil into cooking oil fumes, and then say that "The New York State Department of Health claims that N95 masks do not protect you against chemical vapors...but that was not very helpful." How is that not helpful to you when the cooking oil fumes are chemical vapours? Commented Dec 25, 2022 at 5:44
  • @ChrisRogers Forgive my ignorance-I was unsure that cooking oil fumes are also chemical vapors. Now that you confirmed it, I see the claim by The New York State Department of Health was indeed helpful. But then we'd conclude that N95 does NOT protect you against cooking oil fumes (since we have just established that chemical vapors include cooking oil fumes), and that contradicts CDC's claim that N95 mask DOES filter out fumes (assuming "fumes" include cooking oil fumes). Furthermore, your statement would also contradict the answer below given by David West. Hence something is off here... Commented Dec 25, 2022 at 21:15
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    The only thing "off" here is the question's string of undefined terms. Vapors are substances in their gas phase, fumes are vapors containing solid condensate particles, and smoke is a vapor containing solid and liquid particles formed by combustion. "Oil fumes" is an inaccurate and incomplete description of oil combustion products. Oils produce smoke and oil droplets at their smoke-points, along with many co-produced hydrocarbons in vapor and other forms. N95 masks filter smoke and fumes, but NOT vapors, oils or "oil-fumes." NEVER. By spec. --- No more smoke and mirrors; the answer stands.
    – David West
    Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 11:37
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    The only thing that will protect from these is a respirator with the appropriate cartridges. An organic vapor cartridge will protect against benzopyrene and hydrocarbons. A special formaldehyde cartridge would be needed for formaldehyde. You can find a combo of the two, such as the 3M #60925 cartridge.
    – Jason C
    Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 21:29

2 Answers 2

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No.

No, no, no.

Covid face masks help prevent contagious disease. They are not meant for anything else. Period. End of public health announcement.

To be clear, N95 facemasks are particulate respirators. They do not protect against organic vapors, carcinogenic or otherwise.

The posed question becomes complex with the inclusion of extensive background material, references, and opinions. Of note, the research excludes mask specifications. The discussion conflates the foundational concepts of smoke and vapor. The conclusion quotes the CDC, summarizes the authoritative and comprehensive guidance of the New York State Department of Health, and then goes on to remark "but that was not very helpful."

It is hoped that this reply will dispel many of the myths making the public think that these new face masks will now keep them safe from anything and everything dangerous in the air. It's just not true, and it's dangerous when folks believe or imply otherwise.

Although N95 masks are required by OSHA for people who work in specific smoke environments and have helped a lot of regular folks who live in wildfire zones, they CAN NOT filter commonly co-present carcinogenic compounds in the kitchen or anywhere else.

As requested in the question, the above remarks are provided to clarify by promoting trust in the American institutions empowered to provide reliable, factual answers to public health questions such as yours.

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    a P100 mask will do the trick, right?
    – amara
    Commented Dec 25, 2022 at 15:04
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    N95s are dust masks. The term respirator, in the construction industry, is reserved for the ones that have cartridges. Not all of which are capable of filtering organic vapors +1. RTFM.
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 25, 2022 at 23:44
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    Neither N95 nor N100 masks can filter the products of oil combustion.--- The term "oil-fumes" is a misleading misnomer. Oil combustion does not produce fumes. It produces smoke, oil droplets and organic vapors.--- N95 masks are defined as a type of respirator. Call 'em what you want. I fit test employees with them for industry. You are VERY correct that not all respirators can filter vapors. That's kind of my point.--- Organic cartridge respirators can be half-mask or full-mask, depending on the need for eye protection. SCBA is your fresh air, "firefighter" gear. Hoods go with biochem suits. D
    – David West
    Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 12:12
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    Instead of making snide remarks about the question and pontificating on how marvelous the American institutions are, you could just answer the question. If "the discussion conflates the foundational concepts of smoke and vapor", then explain the difference between them, how effective (if at all) N95 masks are at filtering one versus the other, and which form the carcinogenic substances take, etc.
    – suriv
    Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 18:50
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    @Mazura Formaldehyde protection is usually separate from organic vapor protection; look for cartridges labelled "organic vapors and formaldehyde" (like the 3M #60925).
    – Jason C
    Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 21:30
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TL;DR - The specific answer is "NO, N95 masks cannot reliably protect one from the questioned chemicals/compounds". But there's so much more to consider...

This supplemental answer is more broad than the specific, misguided focus on N95 masks. That's not meant to insult, it's meant as recognition of the complexity of the world of safety controls, of which N95 masks are a small part. Even seasoned safety officers, like myself, find that protecting others from myriad dangers is an arduous task requiring years of study, intense application analyses, and quite a lot of human psychology application. Without a good understanding of safety principles, an internet search and a few articles will likely confuse and lead one astray.

N95 Masks

At the very base of the question, any protective mask must be appropriate to the application. "N95 mask" is actually a broad category; there are numerous types of N95 masks created for their specific use. Assuming the question is referencing the type of N95 masks made popular by the COVID-19 pandemic and CDC response, these are masks specific to medical/biological protection applications; they should not be assumed effective in any other application, be it chemical vapors, smoke, radiologics, even other novel biologics for which they have not been specifically tested and approved. In short, if the mask is not made, tested, and approved for the application, then one really has no idea whether it will work.

Even if one has determined a correct mask/respirator type, one still needs to assure that the manufacturer and seller are legitimate. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting supply glut brought numerous counterfeit masks to the supply chain. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/usernotices/counterfeitResp.html.

Research

Another issue with gaining knowledge from internet sources is a misunderstanding of the research process. Research articles may be published, later refuted, found to be flawed with additional research, found to be biased leading to inaccurate conclusions, or may be built upon by additional research and generally accepted as accurate. This is what professional organizations such as CDC, NIOSH, and many others do - they understand the research and apply it appropriately for the world. This process takes years, and is not perfect (because humans are not perfect).

The given research articles generally suggest that frying foods is likely a threat to health. But this needs to be supported by additional research to say how much threat exists, for whom, in what amounts, for what exposure time, and more. Not to mention the relative harm of actually eating the foods discussed. Research additionally needs to support our understanding of appropriate mitigation methods with which the following might help in a general way.

Hazard Controls

While the question focuses on masks, a component of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), one must understand that PPE is the least effective of safety controls. We use it in hospital settings simply because other, more effective controls are impossible or impractical. See the Safety Controls Hierarchy below from National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/hierarchy/default.html :

NIOSH Hierarchy of Hazard Controls

Simply as a comparative use of the Hierarchy - in hospitals, we cannot eliminate our infectious patients or substitute them for something benign. But we can use the latter three of the hierarchy:

Engineering - we physically isolate particularly infectious patients in rooms with negative airflow.

Administrative - hospitals have policies and procedures, based on supportive research and professional organization known best practices, to direct employees in working safely with infectious patients.

PPE - we wear use-specific masks, gowns, gloves, shoe covers, head covers, hoods, supplied-air respirators, and other PPE as called for by known best practice for the specific infectious agent. This is the last line of defense against transmission of infection from patient to worker.

Applying the Hierarchy of Controls to the specific cooking situation is absolutely appropriate and would be more effective than using a single component (N95 masks) of a single point of the hierarchy (PPE). Suggestions:

Elimination - Remove oils, stoves, and frying pans from your house. Not really practical, as this only leads to substitution because "a man's gotta eat" (Trailer Park Boys - Randy).

Substitution - Cook and eat something different than fried foods. Use a different cooking method that does not involve frying. Eat food known/believed to be more healthy than fried foods. Safety isn't always as fun as doing whatever the heck one wants, but one needs to prioritize. This is also where the human psychology component of safety comes in - I know most people won't eliminate fried foods from their diets, so let's look at some realistic alternatives.

Engineering - Each of us probably already has a hood fan over our stove, but does it vent to the outside? Many don't (in U.S. at least). Is it really effective? Could we open a few windows to help clearing of the smoke/chemicals? Have we changed your hood filters according to manufacturer's recommendations? Could we do most or all of the frying outside? A hood fan will not be completely effective, but can be an important component in our safety controls, especially in commercial applications. This also brings up the question of harm to others if we vent to the outside on a commercial scale, i.e., are we just protecting the workers at the expense of innocent others?

Administrative - As the administrator of our households, we may set rules for all who cook so that appropriate safety controls will be followed. As the administrator of a restaurant or other commercial food production, one may require, through policy, engineering controls and worker safety procedures.

PPE - I think that masks are not necessarily a bad idea for use in cooking, but the mask needs to be the correct type for the given safety hazard else it is a waste of time and money. A few chemicals/compounds were mentioned in the question and each must be accounted for when choosing the correct protection. As a reference, this 3M site details their products appropriate for use in specific applications with specific chemicals: https://www.3m.com/3M/en_US/respiratory-protection-us/applications/ Please note that, although I have received some training from 3M, I am not employed by nor a representative of, and I do not receive compensation from 3M. I am also not specifically recommending their products as there are several other PPE manufacturers with comparable products.

As one finds the respirator/filter types appropriate for exposure to such things as benzopyrenes and formaldehyde as mentioned in the question, one will also likely decide they are not practical (cost and comfort) for personal use, but might be appropriate for daily exposure at a commercial level. Note that assessment of the amount and exposure time of the hazard is necessary to determine how often filters need to be replaced.

Final Notes

We cannot answer the general question of whether N95 masks protect one from cooking chemicals; the question is much too broad. However, I am inclined to opine "heck no".

If one is questioning appropriate mask use in a commercial setting, this raises all sorts of legal issues that I am not about to address. Leave those issues to those who regulate the industry in question. Although, I will note that workers generally have a right in the U.S. to voluntarily wear PPE at their own expense - see OSHA standards for details.

@David West had a great answer. I'm just giving supplemental information for those who may come across this question in the future.

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