Six models of Hong Kong-made disposable surgical masks have a bacteria level higher than the European safety standard, Hong Kong’s consumer watchdog has said. It tested 30 different coloured or patterned face masks, many of which were made in Hong Kong.

A mask mandate has been in place in the city for more than two years to stem the spread of Covid-19.

Photo: Consumer Council.

The Consumer Council said on Monday that the hygiene standards for the models in question was “worrisome,” with one recording a bacterial count that was more than six times over the EU-approved limit. The European standard stipulates that that there are no more than 30 colony-forming units (CFUs) per gram. A mask by Casetify had 219.9 CFUs.

Because people generally wear masks for a long time and they are close to their faces, it is important that they are hygienic, Nora Tam, who chairs the council’s Research and Testing Committee, said during a press conference on Monday.

“They will affect our skin and may cause skin problems,” Tam said, adding that people with weaker immune systems should “pay extra attention,” because they could be negatively impacted “by the bacterial contamination.”

A photo taken in late January shows Hongkongers wearing face masks on the street in Central. Photo: GovHK.

Other brands with high bacteria levels included MasHKer, Savewo Memories, H-PLUS, Medox, and Stand Out. They all scored the lowest mark of one out of five for hygiene.

Of those tested, 28 were made in Hong Kong. The remaining two were produced in mainland China.

Filtration efficiency

The watchdog also tested the masks’ average bacterial filtration efficiency (BFE) and particle filtration efficiency (PFE), which indicate their level of protection against viruses. All models reached 95 per cent for both, meeting the level 1 requirement of the America Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standard.

The council tested five samples of each model. It said 29 had an outstanding performance with an average BFE of over 99 per cent. However, one labelled as having the highest ASTM level 3 had a BFE between 96.7 to 97.3 per cent, meaning it only met the requirement of ASTM level 1.

Masks with ASTM level 3 must have BFE and PFE of 98 per cent or above.

Photo: Consumer Council.

“If the product performance fails to comply with its claims, it might be in violation of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance,” the watchdog said.

Tam said that although surgical masks were generally considered as medical devices, Hong Kong did not have specific legislation to regulate the manufacture, import, export, sale and use of medical devices. She called on the government to tighten requirements for masks and strengthen related regulations.

At least one sample from more than 60 per cent of the brands inspected were also found to have a lower PFE than claimed. Tam said it showed that manufacturers needed to improve quality control.

Better labelling

Apart from the quality of surgical masks, the watchdog said it was important for the manufacturer to do better labelling, for example reminding consumers of how to correctly wear a face mask and the appropriate way to dispose of them.

Hong Kong has reported 1,417,022 Covid-19 infections and 9,565 related deaths since the pandemic began.

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Almond Li

Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.