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LG unveils a new high-tech ‘smart mask.’ But does it protect against COVID?

August 28, 2020, 6:12 PM UTC

LG plans to sell a mask that makes cloth versions worn by many people during the coronavirus era seem like they’re from the Stone Age. The so-called smart mask, partially unveiled on Thursday, is packed with hospital-grade HEPA filters and battery-powered fans that are supposed to make breathing easier by drawing in air.

Although LG says the mask is good for health, hygiene, and making “life safer,” the company left one big question unanswered: Does the mask protect against COVID-19?

“If this mask were to be marketed as a protection against COVID, I would want to see data on its effectiveness for the wearer and also its effectiveness at limiting transmission of respiratory droplets to others,” said Janet Baseman, a professor of public health and epidemiology at the University of Washington. “Absent that data, it’s hard to say how it would perform against an N95 mask,” the type often used by health workers for protection against the coronavirus and other infectious diseases.

LG doesn’t have any data about its new mask’s effectiveness against COVID-19. Responding to an inquiry from Fortune, the Korean electronics company said it’s waiting for the results of ongoing tests before discussing the topic.

N95 masks have already been shown to both protect people wearing them from inhaling coronavirus-bearing droplets, and reduce the risk of their spreading the virus by breathing. Widely used cloth masks provide less protection for people wearing them than an N95, but they still help to significantly limit community transmission of the virus by reducing how far exhalations travel.

N95 masks can be difficult to breathe in, a nuisance LG apparently hopes to capitalize on with its fan-equipped masks. But those fans could themselves create unexpected risks. If a person infected with the coronavirus wears LG’s mask, the fans may create air currents outside the mask that could spread the virus.

An image of the LG mask, called the PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier, shows vents on its front, and while their exact purpose is unclear, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has already warned that masks with exhalation valves or vents “do not prevent the person wearing the mask from transmitting COVID-19 to others.”

LG has not yet announced the mask’s price or weight, but it plans to reveal more details at the IFA tech conference in Berlin in early September. LG says the mask will be available in a limited number of unidentified markets this year, sometime after Oct. 1.