An investigation conducted by a Nashville television news station has revealed that cloth masks distributed by the state of Tennessee, and manufactured in Cleveland, were treated with a potentially harmful chemical.
According to NewsChannel 5, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's website states that Silvadur can “cause irreversible eye damage" and "cause skin burns."
In addition, EPA said the substance is “harmful if absorbed through skin,” and is “harmful if inhaled.”
The substance is an antimicrobial designed to ward off odors.
"I wouldn't wear one,” Dr. Warren Porter, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a board member for the environmental group Beyond Pesticides, told the news station. "Nobody wants to breathe in COVID, but I wouldn't want to be breathing in something that I also knew could be poisoning my body in a relatively short period of time and might be having multi-year effects on my health."
The masks, which are produced at Renfro’s sock plant on Michigan Avenue Road, cost the state some $8.2 million, according to media reports.
The masks have been distributed throughout state health departments.
The Cleveland Daily Banner left two voicemail messages with Renfro officials; however, they had not been returned as of late Saturday.
In a statement to NewsChannel 5, DuPont, which manufactures the chemical, said, “Silvadur is a safe and trusted technology used to control bacteria, mold and mildew that cause odors on fabric for more than a decade with no adverse health effects.”
“The antimicrobial material applied to treated fabrics, such as face masks or coverings are at such low levels that the use of the fabric poses no risk to consumers,” the company said.
Dupont said Silvadur has been approved by the EPA to control bacteria, mold and mildew that cause odor on fabrics.
“Based on EPA regulations, Silvadur is registered with the agency and classified as a pesticide,” the company stated. “The independent International Oeko-Tex Association conducted a thorough evaluation of the technology, and confirmed SILVADUR™ 930 FLEX Antimicrobial is recognized and listed as an Active Chemical Product, with biological activity, as a formulation that has been assessed to be harmless to human health, provided it is used as indicated and designated.”
DuPont also said its “Microbial Control products, including Silvadur, are not manufactured from nanotechnology nor are nanometer-sized particles intentionally added during any stage of the process."
Additionally, the company said "any reference or reporting that our products are nano-based is false and misleading.”
Earlier this month, Renfro donated 2,000 of the cloth face masks to city of Cleveland and Bradley County first responders to protect them from the COVID-19 contagion.
The 345-employee plant on Michigan Avenue Road is owned by the North Carolina-based Renfro Corporation, the largest manufacturer and retailer of socks in the United States. According to its website, the company manufactures socks for such brands as Carharrt, Copper Sole, Dr. Scholl’s and Fruit of the Loom.
The company is “responsible for 20% of all socks purchased in the United States,” its website states.
Troy Spence, director of the Cleveland/Bradley Emergency Management Agency, told the Cleveland Daily Banner that he had not yet seen the news report, but would be looking into the claims made in the story. He said he would be making a decision soon to discontinue use of the masks in his department once he has confirmed additional information.
On Saturday, the Hamilton County Health Department released a statement regarding mask distribution:
"The Hamilton County Health Department is suspending distribution of the cloth face masks that were distributed throughout the state by the Governor’s Unified Command Group," the statement read. "It has been reported that the cloth masks, manufactured by Renfro, are coated with Silvadur. Silvadur is an anti-microbial substance commonly applied to fabrics to reduce odor causing bacterial growth. Only trace amounts of Silvadur are applied to the fabric and that amount will continually diminish with each wash. Until more data is made available about the application of Silvadur to these masks, the public is asked to refrain from using and distributing the masks."
It is not yet known if the Bradley County Health Department will follow Hamilton County in the decision to suspend distribution of the masks.