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N95 Mask Shortage Brings Inventor Out Of Retirement In Search Of Safe Reuse Method

Used N95 masks are collected at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on Monday.
Blake Nissen
Boston Globe via Getty Images
Used N95 masks are collected at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on Monday.

Hospitals across the U.S. are facing a shortage of N95 masks amid the coronavirus pandemic, putting health care workers at increased risk of infection.

The health crisis has brought Peter Tsai, the material scientist and engineer who developed the mask's virus-blocking technology, out of retirement to study safe ways to disinfect the single-use masks for reuse — nearly 30 years after his invention.

"I just want to help people, and just do my job," Tsai said in an interview with Morning Edition.

With N95s in short supply, some medical personnel are resorting to sterilization methods typically used to expunge the virus, like alcohol and bleach, which can degrade the integrity of the masks.

Tsai — who retired from the University of Tennessee last year after more than 30 years of teaching — says that researchers racing to find safe methods to sterilize the masks have been flooding his inbox, asking questions about his patented technology.

Among those seeking his consult is a team of volunteer researchers at universities and organizations across the U.S. looking at potential solutions for N95 mask decontamination. Since mid-March, N95DECON, as the collective is called, has experimented with heat, a type of ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide vapor.

To Tsai's colleagues, like Maha Krishnamoorthi, he's a rock-star.

Krishnamoorthi, vice president of the University of Tennessee Research Foundation, says she told Tsai, "You seem to be the man of the hour."

"And he said, 'No — I'm man of the minute.' "

Tsai says the praise belongs to the health care professionals who endanger themselves fighting the coronavirus.

"The front-line hospital workers — they are heroes. I'm just trying to help them to wear the mask."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.