Only a small percentage of all blue surgical masks contain graphene

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A post shared on Facebook claims that Chinese-manufactured blue masks “widely used” in Uganda contain graphene, a material that could be harmful to the lungs when inhaled. This is misleading; not all “blue masks” contain graphene, according to experts. Furthermore, studies are still ongoing to determine whether tiny particles of graphene found in some masks are harmful to people.

The misleading post was published here on Facebook on May 4, 2021, and has been shared nearly 450 times since. 

Screenshot of the misleading post, taken on May 11, 2021

The post urges Uganda to “ban the sale/use of these blue masks” because they contain graphene. The claim, however, is misleading. Not all blue masks are made with graphene.

Graphene is a nanomaterial (a compound made up of tiny particles) that is reported to have antibacterial and antiviral properties. It is for this reason that some masks are made with an outer layer containing graphene.

Although the results are still inconclusive, there are, however, some concerns that the “fiber-like” material might be harmful to the lungs when inhaled (see scientific reviews here and here). 

Canada recall

It is true that Canada’s department of health issued a warning in April 2021 that inhaling graphene particles “could pose health risks”, including  “early pulmonary toxicity” and urged Canadians to forgo certain types of masks manufactured in China that contain graphene. 

The agency noted that preliminary assessments suggest that inhaling the compound may cause lung infections in animals, and the risks to humans are not yet known.

Chemist Joe Schwarcz, who is the director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University, told AFP Fact Check that a study by Health Canada revealed that one type of mask distributed to schools and daycare centres in the country contained graphene. 

Schwarcz noted that the inhalation of any particulate matter has the potential to cause health problems, such as triggering an inflammatory response. 

According to Schwarcz, there are different forms of graphene and graphene oxide. Some may have toxic effects, but more in-depth research needs to be done.

“For now, it is appropriate to follow Health Canada’s advice and avoid the masks in question, but the findings by Health Canada are inconclusive, and therefore can’t be used to rule out the importance of graphene,” said Schwarcz.

Geoffroy Legault-Thivienge, a spokesman for Health Canada, told AFP Fact Check that “some models of masks containing graphene, manufactured in China by Shandong Shengquan New Materials Co. Ltd., were legally imported into Canada and sold”.

He added that at this time, all identified importers of masks containing graphene are recalling them.

Not all blue masks contain graphene

Currently, “graphene-containing masks cannot be identified by colour or design”, according to Legault-Thivienge. He recommended that people check product labels for reference to “biomass graphene”. If it is not clear whether the mask contains graphene, people should contact the manufacturer on the label to inquire about mask components.

Schwarcz concurred, noting that “certainly not all blue masks contain graphene”.

A search on the website of Shandong Shengquan New Materials Co., Ltd. — one of the companies cited by Health Canada — revealed that the firm manufactures several types of masks containing graphene, not only the “blue masks” mentioned in the post. 

Masks are considered a key measure to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. AFP Fact Check has previously written about the use of masks to prevent Covid-19 transmission here and here.