NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The state of Tennessee plans to resume distribution of millions of face masks after being assured by federal regulators that the antimicrobial pesticide used to treat the sock-like material is safe.
Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey told reporters Wednesday that the state had pursued independent testing anticipating that they would not get a direct answer from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We were pleasantly surprised earlier this week to get a full report of safety from the EPA, which we consider to be the gold standard on those different chemicals," Piercey said. "So we have canceled our independent testing and are endorsing the use of those masks."
With a continuing rise in COVID-19 cases, Piercey said "cloth face coverings of any kind will be highly advisable.... They need to get out in the hands of the public."
Gov. Bill Lee's administration signed an $8.2 million, no-bid contract with Renfro Corp., a North Carolina-based sock manufacturer, to produce five million face and mouth coverings to be distributed across Tennessee.
As NewsChannel 5 reported, the "sock masks" are treated with Silvadur 930, a registered pesticide using silver technology, to ward off odors.
In undiluted form, Silvadur 930 carries warning labels that the pesticide can results in harm to human fetuses, as well as other health concerns.
But the EPA issued a statement insisting that the concentration of the pesticide on a treated face mask would be minimal.
"Once Silvadur 930 Flex is incorporated or impregnated into the fabric, it is extremely unlikely that it would be inhaled," the statement said.
"Therefore, EPA considers inhalation exposures to be negligible and not of concern."
A 2010 EPA study had concluded that "there is evidence that silver, and in particular nanosilver, is toxic to aquatic and terrestrial organisms ... and may be detrimental to human health."
And the environmental group Beyond Pesticides had voiced concerns about Tennesseans using the masks.
"The state should provide masks made out of cloth that is not treated with a pesticide. It’s simple," Beyond Pesticides executive director Jay Feldman said.
Following the state's announcement, Renfro issued a statement from company president Stan Jewel.
“We have had full confidence in our product all along and are very thankful that Tennesseans will once again have access to face masks to help reduce the spread of COVID-19," the statement said.
"These masks, which we stepped up to produce at a time the country needed them, have been a sincere source of pride for me, and for Renfro as a whole. We thank Governor Lee for taking the additional steps to confirm the safety of our masks.
“Renfro developed and manufactured a safe, comfortable, and reusable mask to fill a critical need in a national health crisis. We are proud that we could provide 5 million masks to Tennesseans, who may not have otherwise been able to access them during this pandemic – and that in doing so we created about 500 new jobs for Americans in a great time of need. Our efforts have been entirely focused on making a positive impact on our country in very trying times, and we look forward to continuing on that mission.”