As most of you know, I invited all of you to participate in a little homeschool science experiment concerning masks. There are a few negative things said about the health consequences of mask wearing, most of which we could never test out at home. But pulse oximeters make it possible to test one thing easily: whether or not mask wearing negatively affects a person’s oxygenation. My hypothesis, which I stated at the outset, was that it would negatively affect oxygenation.
I know what you really want to know: was she right or wrong? For now I will tell you that I appear to be both. The answers — and my new thoughts on masks — are much more nuanced than I expected.
We discovered quite a few things about oxygenation and masks along the way and honestly I wish I could redo this experiment. I would write the procedures up a different way. I’ll explain my thoughts at the end.
First, I will share my data. (We had quite a few people sign up to do the experiment, but only seven people turned in their data. This means my family of six is about half the data set. This, of course, makes the data even less statistically significant than it already was. Not that I was pretending we were actual scientists.)
Here’s the part where I tell you I was wrong. Most of the people in the test were able to maintain oxygenation within safe ranges. How do I define safe? Well, I did a bunch of research beforehand and discovered that 95% oxygen saturation is the usual cutoff between “okay” and “mild hypoxia.” It’s also generally accepted that brain dysfunction begins at 89% and brain damage begins at 85%. Only one person dropped into the brain damage range — my 15-year-old daughter (I explain about this — keep reading).
A few things you will want to know:
- The initial baseline was established by sitting restfully for 10 minutes before taking the measurements.
- The exercise baseline was established by 10 minutes of brisk walking and then taking the measurements immediately.
- The masked exercise was 10 minutes of brisk walking with measurements taken immediately.
As you can see, only one person dropped into the mild hypoxia range, and that was during exercise. My state, at least, lists exercise as an exemption.
Missing data is due to two persons not able to complete the experiment due to hypoxia. More details about that below. I wish the graph didn’t go up to 101%. I don’t think there is any such thing when it comes to oxygenation! But I couldn’t figure out how to fix it, so there you are.
I am the yellow column. I must tell you I am quite proud of those O2 levels. Yes, yes, I breath strangely in a mask and yawn a lot. But I feel a little triumphant. I was severely anemic in my late 30s and it has taken many years and a whole lot of work and research to bring myself to the point where I am now. When I first put on the oximeter and noticed that when I am without a mask, I am consistently at 99-100% no matter what I do, I was so thankful to God for allowing me to reach this place because I was quite despairing at one point.
About Those Who Had to Discontinue the Test
I did this experiment on myself first. In a mask, I feel like I struggle to breathe (as evidenced by my continual yawning and other odd behaviors that I can hardly control). But when I did my initial test (which I completed), I was fully oxygenated at the 15, 30, 45, and 60 minute marks. Yes, it was lower than my base (I am usually at 99%, no matter what I’m doing, according to my oximeter), but still within the safe range.
I decided to try again, this time wearing the oximeter continuously. I plummeted again and again into the low 90s (anything below 95% isn’t really safe, brain dysfunction starts at 90, I believe). So all the gasping and yawning was actually my body’s cry for help. Yes, at the recorded minutes (15, 30, 45, and 60) I was technically fine, but those numbers weren’t the whole story.
When I did the experiment with my 15-year-old daughter, I required her to wear the oximeter the entire time. She dropped to 93% after 10 minutes. With me coaching her on deep breathing, she brought it back up and at minute 15, I recorded her saturation at 98% (you see why I’m kicking myself on how I designed the study).
At minute 27, she dropped to 91%. Again, I coached her on deep breathing and again oxygenation was restored and at minute 30 I recorded her saturation for the test as 98%.
At minute 35, she plunged to 89. For a number of minutes I worked with her to try to get it back up, but when I couldn’t get her above 92%, I discontinued the test.
During this time, she was sitting in a chair and reading. She wasn’t walking, lifting, or doing anything as strenuous as what we’d do at, say, Costco (where she would be required to wear a mask).
We went ahead and tried the exercise portion of the experiment. She dropped enough to set off the alarms multiple times, once all the way to 81% saturation, but nothing so long that I felt she needed to stop (she was only at this brain damage level for a few seconds). I had to stay with her and coach her on her breathing the entire time, but she made it through with a final saturation of 97%, which is not dangerous.
When I did the experiment with my 11-year-old son, I was shocked. This child cannot safely wear a mask for any length of time, and I’m really not sure why. The first time I put a mask on him, he dropped within 10 seconds to a saturation of 88%. I seriously thought it was a fluke. I tried again, and this time I had to ask: Are you holding your breath? Doing anything weird with your fingers? I asked a variety of questions, but really he was doing what he had been doing during the unmasked resting period when all his measurements were fine.
That afternoon, I found him reading and tried again. I put a mask over his head and the oximeter on on his finger. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as before, but 15 seconds later his oxygen saturation was at 92%.
I tried the exercise portion. My theory was that we all breathe differently when we are exercising than we do at rest, so perhaps he’d have more success there. After 15 seconds, his oxygenation was again at 92%.
Because it wasn’t safe, I discontinued the exercise portion of the test as well.
My Thoughts on the Experiment and its Results
Needless to say, I have a number of them.
How I Would Redesign the Study
The biggest change I would make is require continuous oximeter wearing and require notes to be made anytime a participant set off an alarm (which could be for pulse rate or oxygen saturation). A couple people made notes telling me they were surprised by their numbers because they feel like they are really struggling. My thought after my own continuous wearing is: maybe they are. How can we know unless they wear it continuously. There is nothing magical about taking a measurement at 15 minutes. Maybe we need to know what happened at 13 as well!
Continuous wearing would also give us a better idea about a person’s baseline. Since I had my children doing continuous wearing, I realized one was setting off alarms while exercising without a mask. Apparently, she holds her breath while exercising without realizing it. I told her to work on remembering to breathe and her numbers were fine while wearing a mask, but let’s think about what might have happened: if she had only taken her oximeter reading at the end of minute 10 and then hadn’t been coached to remember to breathe (which I shouldn’t have done until the test was over but I didn’t think about at the time — I had already gone into mothering mode without thinking), she might have done poorly at the masked exercise and I would have blamed the mask, but her lack of breathing would likely have been the real culprit.
Family Guidelines Set in Place
My primary reason to do this was to get real information about my own family, and now I have. I learned that my struggles with breathing through a mask are real, not psychological or imagined. (I did wonder if it was a type of claustrophobia.)
The new state mandate has a medical exception written in, so I can bring all my children with me (not that we go many places these days) without worrying they are in breach of an order. My two who didn’t make it through the experiment are simply not allowed to wear masks. We told them that if an adult asks or demands they wear a mask, they simply say they are not allowed to wear one and refer those adults to their parents.
Have Some Compassion
I’ve heard some adults say masks are fine, people who don’t want to wear them are being whiners, and they just need to toughen up and take one for the team. Those same adults seem okay about demanding children go back to school wearing masks for six to eight hours per day.
I’ve also seen some who refuse to wear masks act like the people wearing masks who say they are fine are lying. They couldn’t possibly be fine; they are delusional.
Here’s what I observed regarding oxygenation: some people are really, truly fine. My husband is a good example. He can wear a mask indefinitely and never drop in oxygenation, not even while exercising (at least exercising for ten minutes in the experiment — perhaps a longer duration would reveal something different).
But I also observed this: some people are truly not fine! My poor son’s reaction was so extreme that even I thought it couldn’t be real. I don’t know why he responds this way — maybe he’s allergic to what the mask is made of, I don’t know — but his response is real. My daughter’s is, too, and I take it seriously that once she even ended up in brain damage territory (which is different from dysfunction).
So my thought is that it’s possible that the people who aren’t comfortable wearing masks aren’t comfortable for real, measurable reasons. How about they go without masks and everyone just accepts that? I don’t think we should be asking some to brain damage themselves, and I truly wonder who is going to protect the children. I doubt my neighborhood school is planning to examine the oxygenation of the students, but I think they should. Not because all children will have a problem, but because some will, and we should protect them.
What I Recommend
I think that if you are concerned about mask wearing for yourself or your family members, you should either buy a pulse oximeter (this is the one I own), or go to a facility that will allow you the use of theirs for a while. Then, go ahead and do this same experiment. Find out your baseline. Wear an oximeter and watch your measurements for a whole hour. Take a brisk walk and find out whether that changes anything and, if so, by how much.
Basically I’m recommending informed consent. If you’re going to submit to wearing a masks, I think you should evaluate the risk. There are a number of them, but the one you can measure and observe is this one, and that’s a good place to start.
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