Face masks can be a health hazard for some Canadians

Health experts warn that masks can negatively impact people with certain cognitive disabilities or respiratory issues

While wearing face masks is slowly becoming more common in Toronto, they can be dangerous to the health of some people.

Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam now recommends that Canadians wear non-medical masks in public places when it’s not possible to maintain physical distancing in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. She also warned masks might not be ideal for those with certain medical conditions.

“Be very aware of those with different types of cognitive, intellectual disabilities, those who are hearing impaired and others,” Tam said earlier this week. “Don’t assume that someone who isn’t wearing a mask or is wearing something different doesn’t have an actual reason for it.”

That can include those with asthma, allergies, those who are hard of hearing and rely on reading lips, those are hearing impaired and rely on sound, or people of a certain age with respiratory issues.

Masks can also impact children and adults living with certain disabilities, including autism and sensory disorders.

Those who are asthmatic can be at risk of having an asthma attack while wearing a mask, while those who already have respiratory issues might risk having their condition worsened.

A fact sheet on Asthma Canada’s website states that “wearing a mask means breathing hot and humid air which can trigger asthma symptoms made worse by wearing a face covering.”

The organization advises people with asthma to limit the length of trips and plan to go out during cooler periods. It also advises people to try on a mask around the house for 20 minutes to test their comfort level before going outside.

In a press statement released on Wednesday, the Ministry of Health declared, “Face coverings should not be placed on or used by children under the age of two anyone who has trouble breathing and anyone who is unable to remove it without assistance.”

For all others, when taking transit, in a grocery store, pharmacy or generally in public and unable to physically distance, non-medical grade cloth masks are now being strongly recommended by health officials at all levels of government.

However, a mask is not a substitute for physical distancing or hand-washing, health officials have said. Masks do not protect the wearer from COVID-19. Rather, a non-medical face mask is an extra measure to protect others.

With several grocery chains – including Longo’s, Whole Foods and T&T – having recently made wearing masks a requirement while shopping, this could potentially present an issue for those unable to wear them.

In a statement to NOW, a Longo’s spokesperson said the supermarket chain will make accommodations.

“Longo’s is committed to making accommodations for guests who cannot wear a mask for various reasons,” the rep said. “For those who wish to not wear a face covering, or who may have a medical reason that does not allow them to wear a mask or face covering, accommodations will be made on an individual basis.”

That could entail a Longo’s employee completing their grocery shopping on their behalf. Whole Foods is offering similar accommodations. 

Starbucks, which also recently announced all stores will be requesting customers to wear masks as they begin reopening, is open to assisting those with different needs as well.

“Starbucks is respectfully requesting customers follow physical distancing and safety protocols recommended by public health officials, including wearing a facial covering when visiting stores as an added layer of protection for customers and partners,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to NOW. “As this is a request and not a requirement, our partners will continue to serve all customers regardless of whether they’re wearing a facial covering or not.”

As the city continues to reopen, Mayor John Tory has said that mandating mask-wearing in other public spaces is being considered.

On Wednesday, Toronto’s medical officer of health Eileen de Villa recommended “face coverings or non-medical masks be worn when physical distancing cannot be maintained.”

“At this time, face masks or non-medical masks are not mandatory in Toronto,” she added.


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