Fake N95 Masks Are Slipping Under Our Nose

By Stockton Grunewald
Feb 07 2022 |
Getty Images

Despite a litany of Made in America options now on the market, too many organizations and government entities are purchasing foreign-made masks, which are often found to be inadequate or even counterfeit.

As the United States continues to endure the Omicron variant, health care professionals have recommended Americans ditch cloth masks for stronger substitutes like N95 masks.

In response, many foreign manufacturers, primarily from China, have flooded the market with cheap masks, which are often not-up-to-par in terms of safety standards or even downright counterfeit. And unfortunately, too many organizations, institutions and even government officials continue to buy them.

This past week, an investigation by American University’s student newspaper, the Eagle, determined that the school had unintentionally distributed counterfeit KN95 masks as part of AU’s return to campus protocols. And while campus administrators expressed dismay over the delivery, their story is all too common.

Over the past two years, especially in recent months, folks across the United States have been hoodwinked by foreign made face masks that fail National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certification, let alone international standards.  

In New Orleans, the city government began an effort to combat the surge in coronavirus cases, coinciding with the surge in the Omicron variant. New Orleans residents could visit their local public library to pick up masks, promised that the equipment had been evaluated for their safety. But after community members pointed out some irregularities, such as masks not having any markings aside from “N95,” officials blamed a bad batch on a donation from Bank of America and the paper trail ended there. Residents still don’t know if some – or all – of the masks made available were counterfeit. 

Policymakers themselves have encountered procurement issues with masks. Last month, Capitol Hill came together – in frustration – over distribution of Chinese-made KN95 masks. Democrats and Republicans alike scratched their heads, wondering why, with all the domestic, (and verifiable) N95s available for purchase, leadership had instead chosen China.

And, unfortunately, lawmakers knew the answer.

“Regrettably, a key reason this part of the industry was offshored pre-COVID was because price was the predominant factor in purchasing. It is unacceptable that the federal legislative branch – using taxpayer dollars – has chosen to purchase potentially inferior masks from China when we have domestic manufacturers eager to deliver high-quality masks. We must not compromise the health of Americans by making purchases based mainly on lowest cost,” said a group of Senate Democrats. 

Project N95, a non-profit that helped confirm doubts about American University’s masks, has helped consolidate and streamline resources to make sure Americans receive equitable and accountable information on COVID sources.

Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95, recently confirmed that American manufacturers have stepped up to the plate.  

“Back in March 2020, we were told to conserve and not to wear N95 respirators because healthcare workers needed them, and healthcare workers themselves were having to recycle them,” Miller said. “What happened was that the American manufacturing community really sprang to life and spun up manufacturing operations of NIOSH-rated respirators, which is a nontrivial thing to accomplish. I mean, it takes months to get your approval as a NIOSH-rated maker.”

Miller also said that NIOSH approved N95 masks are being made in Texas, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida and California.

There is some good news to report. In coming weeks, the White House plans to release upwards of 400 million N95s from the National Strategic Stockpile. These masks will be available at pharmacies and other locations at no fee – and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says they are all American-made.  

“All NIOSH-approved N95 respirators deploying from the Strategic National Stockpile as part of the effort to provide Americans with free, higher-quality masks are produced in the United States,” a HHS spokesperson said.

Looking for your own N95 masks? We’ve outlined some of the places you can purchase Made in the USA N95s.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has offered these tips to ensure that you and your loved ones are getting the tools you need to fight the pandemic. Some eyebrow raisers for N95s include: 

  • “No markings at all on the filtering facepiece respirator 
  • No approval (TC) number on filtering facepiece respirator or headband 
  • No NIOSH markings 
  • NIOSH spelled incorrectly 
  • Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (e.g., sequins) 
  • Claims for the of approval for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children) 
  • Filtering facepiece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands” 

Additionally, if you’d like to avoid the risk of counterfeits all together, stay away from KN95s, entirely: 

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 60% of KN95 masks it evaluated in 2020 and 2021 did not meet the standards they were intended to meet, which makes identifying authentic masks difficult even for experts. The CDC doesn’t approve KN95 masks, instead relying on an international standard established by China. This standard requires that manufacturers print a code that reads ‘GB2626-2019’ directly on the mask, which indicates that it provides the required level of protection; a code of “GB2626-2006” is also acceptable for masks produced before July 1, 2021.” 

If you would like to purchase Made in the USA N95 face masks, including in bulk, click here. 

If you would like more information on personal protection equipment (PPE), including tests and sanitizer, click here.