Possible toxicity of chronic carbon dioxide exposure associated with face mask use, particularly in pregnant women, children and adolescents – A scoping review


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Introduction: During the SARS-CoV-2-pandemic, face masks have become one of the most important ubiquitous factors affecting human breathing. It increases the resistance and dead space volume leading to a re-breathing of CO2. So far, this phenomenon and possible implications on early life has not been evaluated in depth.

Method: As part of a scoping review, literature was systematically reviewed regarding CO2 exposure and facemask use.

Results: Fresh air has around 0.04% CO2, while wearing masks more than 5 min bears a possible chronic exposure to carbon dioxide of 1.41% to 3.2% of the inhaled air. Although the buildup is usually within the short-term exposure limits, long-term exceedances and consequences must be considered due to experimental data. US Navy toxicity experts set the exposure limits for submarines carrying a female crew to 0.8% CO2 based on animal studies which indicated an increased risk for stillbirths. Additionally, mammals who were chronically exposed to 0.3% CO2 the experimental data demonstrate a teratogenicity with irreversible neuron damage in the offspring, reduced spatial learning caused by brainstem neuron apoptosis and reduced circulating levels of the insulin-like growth factor-1. With significant impact on three readout parameters (morphological, functional, marker) this chronic 0.3% CO2 exposure has to be defined as being toxic. Additional data exists on the exposure of chronic 0.3% CO2 in adolescent mammals causing neuron destruction, which includes less activity, increased anxiety and impaired learning and memory. There is also data indicating testicular toxicity in adolescents at CO2 inhalation concentrations above 0.5%.

Discussion: There is a possible negative impact risk by imposing extended mask mandates especially for vulnerable subgroups. Circumstantial evidence exists that extended mask use may be related to current observations of stillbirths and to reduced verbal motor and overall cognitive performance in children born during the pandemic. A need exists to reconsider mask mandates.

Keywords: Adolescents; Carbon dioxide (CO2) exposure; Children; Health risk assessment; Long-term adverse effects; MIES-Syndrome; N95 face mask; Pregnant women; Surgical mask; Toxicity.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no competing interests.


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