Last month, Test-Achats concluded from lab tests that some disposable masks from the supermarket scored better in safety than surgical masks from pharmacies. In recent months you could regularly say the exact opposite. An analysis.
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Not all mouth masks can be trusted, ”Test-Achats announced on June 23. According to the laboratory tests carried out by the consumer organization, there were both reusable cloth masks and disposable surgical masks in our country that did not meet the standards of wearing comfort and protection. Four out of ten fabric mask models tested would fail to meet requirements for fit, filter efficiency or air resistance. Surgical masks purchased from pharmacies were found not to meet the requirements. Test-Achats linked these results in the first place to an appeal to producers and to the government to ensure and control the quality of mouth masks sold in Belgium. Most press attention, however, went to the fact that some pharmacy mouth masks scored worse than supermarket comfort masks: “The disposable masks you buy in the supermarket are best out of the equation,” said Test-Achats’ striking conclusion. Lieven Zwaenepoel – chairman and spokesman for the General Pharmaceutical Association, the national federation of independent officina pharmacists – reacted sharply in his column in the journal De Apotheker. He found the number of masks that Test-Achats tested (5 surgical masks from the pharmacies and 4 comfort masks from the supermarkets) too low to conclude ‘that the quality in one circuit would be better than in the other. That “sample” is not really big. You can’t really call such an “investigation”. ” Spokespersons from Test-Achats, pharmacists’ associations and Comeos (the umbrella of the retail sector) further contested on social media. Those Twitter riots are a flare-up of a discussion between pharmacists and department stores that has been smoldering for three months. During the corona crisis, pharmacists have often been misunderstood by the federal government. Minister of Economic Affairs Nathalie Muylle (CD&V) had initially decided by a ministerial decision on March 23, 2020 that the retail trade of personal protective equipment (including alcohol gel and medical mouth masks) would only go through pharmacists, to counter hoarding. In addition, during the month of April, a government plan to buy a supply of millions of mouth masks from supermarkets and to distribute them to the population in a controlled manner, was again ripened through pharmacists. But in early May, the department stores were also given permission to sell surgical masks after negotiations with Comeos. “Apparently we should not look to this federal government for recognition or support, that much is clear,” the pharmacist federation APB wrote in a press release on May 4. In De Apotheker, pharmacy professor Eline Tommelein (VUB) noted that the supermarket masks would be ‘type 1 masks, so of the lowest quality’. She called the quality of the masks in department stores “unverified” and referred to pharmacists for “a better quality mask with expert explanation.” Flemish opinion makers also took part in the debate. Economist and asset manager Geert Noels wrote on Twitter in May that department stores were selling ‘brolmond masks’. He championed pharmacies as “the only place with safe masks” and even advocated a recall of supermarket masks for public health reasons. He received a sharp reaction from virologist Marc Van Ranst, who asked ineffectively what the judgment was based on. In addition, behind the scenes of this war of words is a commercial battle about the sale of medical and paramedical products (also online) and the growing concern of pharmacists about their market share. The recent Test-Achats research therefore sounds like sweet revenge for the supermarkets. The bulk of the disposable masks were in the racks under the heading ‘comfort mask’, even if the manufacturer described the product as a ‘surgical mask’. On social media you could find photos of mouth masks from department stores with stickers affixed with the warning ‘Not suitable as a surgical mask / Only to be used as a comfort mask / This is not a medical device!’. The affixing of these stickers is an obligation arising from the standards of the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products (FAMHP). Under normal circumstances, a CE mark and inspection documents are required, which can only be delivered after testing. “The demand for tests is currently very high, so supermarkets are not doing those tests and are therefore selling comfort masks,” Comeos spokesman Hans Cardyn told retail magazine Gondola on May 11. Having masks that come onto the market in Belgium is indeed crucial. The quality of the mouth masks has been an issue worldwide for months. In addition to private individuals, the government also had to deal with the creation of its stocks. Mask providers were found to be 90 percent fraudulent, and 18 million of the surgical masks supplied – nearly one in ten – did not meet the medical standard, De Tijd reported. Some producers from other continents affix false CE markings without blinking, which show that the product conforms to European standards in terms of safety, health and environment. Test lab certificates were also forged. How reliable are the analyzes that Test-Achats carried out on some masks in the commercial circuit? That is difficult to judge. The consumer organization did not respond to our request to view the reports. The number of masks tested is low, given the dozens of models on the market. The controlled masks were purchased at the beginning of June, but Test-Achats does not want to communicate in which stores or at which pharmacists that happened. It is also uncharacteristic that no table has been released for this study with the results and brand names of the products tested. This leads to a situation in which consumers are alerted about ‘bad’ masks in circulation, but are unable to verify themselves which types did not score well. Ralph Clinckers, health expert at Test-Achats, blames the decision not to go into detail about the tested products to ‘the volatile market’. Supermarkets and pharmacists do not always buy the same masks from the same producers, and producers do not always have those masks manufactured in the same factories, he says. All parties involved nevertheless fully agree that the uncertainty about the quality of mouth masks sold is indeed real, and that the government should take a more active role in this regard: in terms of testing, but also in communication to wholesalers, to points of sale and to the individual consumer.