A security guard is seen wearing a mask at the international arrivals area at the Toronto Pearson Airport. (AFP / Cole Burston)

Image of misleading flyer about face masks spreads on social media

Copyright AFP 2017-2020. All rights reserved.

An image of a flyer shared thousands of times on social media during the coronavirus pandemic lists a series of alleged risks of face mask use as well as rights for those who refuse to do so. But medical experts and government guidelines indicate that the risks in the flyer are misleading, though the rights stated are broadly accurate.

A “regional authority has mandated all persons entering indoor facilities wear a mask,” says this July 19, 2020 post from a Facebook user in Canada, which features the image of the flyer and does not specify which regional authority it is referring to.

Screenshot of a Facebook post taken on July 23, 2020

The flyer also appears on Facebook here.

AFP Fact Check breaks down the claims in the flyer below.

Claim: Potential for decreased oxygen intake and increased toxin intake

The false claims that a mask will decrease oxygen intake and cause the wearer to inhale toxins have been made in multiple social media posts, including those fact-checked by AFP here, here, here and here.

Vinita Dubey, Associate Medical Officer of Health at Toronto Public Health, told AFP via email that, if worn correctly, a cloth mask is unlikely to reduce oxygen intake.

“In general, a cloth mask does not fit tightly to the face. Air can still go around the mask as well as through the pores in the material,” while acting as a barrier to small virus particles, she said. 

This was confirmed by Dr. Shelley Payne, director of the LaMontagne Center for Infectious Disease at the University of Texas at Austin who told AFP via email: “A properly fitted mask will not cause hypoxia (oxygen deprivation).”

As for increased toxin intake due to mask wearing, Jean-Luc Gala, Head of Clinic at Saint-Luc University in Brussels, Belgium told AFP via email: “We don’t exhale toxins, we exhale carbon dioxide,” meaning “reinhalation,” and therefore “increased toxin intake,” would not occur.

Claim: Compromises immune system, making you more likely to get sick

This claim was also made in social media posts previously fact-checked by AFP here, and is based on the assumption that masks decrease oxygen intake and increase CO2 intake, both of which are false.

“Healthcare workers spend eight hours a day wearing a mask and do not develop secondary infections or health problems,” Yves Coppieters, epidemiologist and public health professor at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, told AFP by email.

Claim: Cross-contamination from repeated use or misuse

“There is no evidence to support that repeated mask wearing leads to toxicity of any sort,” though “there is a theoretical risk of contamination by microbes with repeated use if contaminated,” Alon Vaisman, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto, told AFP via email.

“Appropriate handling of masks will lead to substantial decrease in risk of contamination,” Vaisman added.

Both Health Canada and the province of Ontario have issued best practices guidelines for face coverings, which state that masks must be clean before use and disposed of if not washable. 

Screenshot, taken July 24, 2020 of official Ontario dos and don’ts of wearing a mask.

“A mask should fit comfortably and be easy to breathe to avoid frequent adjustments of the mask while using it,” Dubey said.

Dubey and Health Canada are both clear that, when masks are used correctly, they will reduce the risk of contamination.

Claim: Warning on face mask packaging

The flyer claims that surgical ear loop masks come with the warning: “This product is not a respirator and will not provide any protection against COVID-19 (coronavirus) or other viruses or contaminants.” 

The wording matches that in misleading social media posts fact-checked by AFP here.

Shane Shapera, Director of Toronto General Hospital’s Interstitial Lung Disease Program, told AFP by email: “The purpose of wearing a surgical mask during the COVID-19 pandemic is to protect others from the wearer.” 

“There is excellent data showing us that the main way that COVID-19 spreads is through infected patients coughing or sneezing and having those droplets land in the mouth and nose of people nearby,” Shapera said.

“The idea is that by having everyone protect each other, that will eventually protect you. (ie. if you and I are both wearing masks, your mask protects me while my mask protects you).”

Payne added that the probability of spread “is highest if the carrier or case is not wearing a mask and lowest if both the carrier and contact are masked.”

Claim: Exemptions to mask orders

The flyer also lists a number of exemptions to orders mandating the wearing of face coverings. They are broadly accurate, but AFP has not found a Canadian provincial or local authority with the exact same exemptions as listed in the post.

Wearing a face mask or face covering indoors has not been made mandatory by the federal government, but is recommended by Health Canada.

Quebec is the only province to have made face coverings mandatory in all indoor public places where social distancing is not possible.

The official mandate has permanent exemptions for children under the age of 12, people whose particular medical condition prevents them from wearing a mask or face covering, including those who are unable to put it on or take it off by themselves, and other temporary exemptions.

Similar exemptions exist in the rules established by Nova Scotia, Toronto, Ottawa and those soon to go into effect in Calgary, but these jurisdictions require masks for children over the age of two.

Other provinces, such as British Columbia and Alberta, have not implemented mandatory mask orders.

The premier of Ontario, Doug Ford said in this May 22 press conference that, “Any business has the right to refuse anyone, that's their business.” 

But the flyer is accurate in its claim that businesses cannot ask a customer to prove their exemption, as highlighted in Toronto, Ottawa and Calgary bylaws, leaving merchants in a difficult position when they try to enforce mask regulations.

The flyer claims that businesses cannot refuse to serve someone who is exempt as it would constitute a violation of the “Ontario Human Rights Code as well as the Regional Bylaws.”

The Ontario Human Rights Code does protect people with disabilities from discrimination and harassment “when receiving goods, services and using facilities,” but courts have not yet ruled on a specific case regarding mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The post also accurately says that “constitutional lawyer, Rocco Galati, currently has a large constitutional claim filed for COVID-19 unlawful laws.” Galati filed legal action on behalf of Vaccine Choice Canada, which can be found here.

AFP Fact Check has debunked more than 560 examples of false or misleading information about the novel coronavirus. You can find the complete list of our fact-checks on the topic in English here.

Alex Cadier