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Asia Minute: Asia Dominates Face Mask Production

Casey Harlow / HPR

Face masks have suddenly become a focus of discussion around the country. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is the latest to “strongly recommend” residents wear them while outside. He’s talking about re-usable cloth masks. But the disposable kind are part of a new production push in Asia.

Disposable face masks have been a regular feature of life in parts of Asia for a very long time. The main idea is to wear one when you have a cold or are not feeling well — so you won’t spread germs. Some people wear them during long flights to keep their nasal passages from drying out.

These are not the high filtration N-95 masks so desperately needed by hospitals. They’re mostly paper-based with varying levels of woven fiber.

When it comes to masks of all kinds, China is the dominant global player. The New York Times reports China makes about 7-billion face masks a year — half of the world’s supply. Some of those are made by American companies with factories in China — including 3M.

The Times says another 20% of the world’s face masks come from Taiwan — which this week announced it will be donating 10-million of them to countries hit hard by the spread of the novel coronavirus. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says 2-million of them will be coming to the United States — most of the rest going to Europe.

Earlier this year, Taiwan was among several producers that temporarily banned the export of face masks. And it’s probably not a surprise that masks are on the list of medical equipment that the World Health Organization says is in short supply.

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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