SHELBY CO., Tenn. (WMC) - The Shelby County Health Department announced Monday they were halting the distribution of thousands of face masks sent to the county by the state.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s COVID-19 Unified Command Group said earlier this month 5 million of the masks would be purchased from a sock manufacturer for distribution statewide. But that distribution has been stopped amid safety concerns over a substance used on the masks.
"I do have some concerns, which is why we have opted to not continue to distribute," said Alisa Haushalter, Shelby County Health Department Director.
Haushalter said the county got more than half a million of the sock masks from the state to hand out to residents, and they’ve passed out roughly 300,000 of them.
“We did great at getting them out, so for people who really need a mask and may not have an alternative, I’m sure it’s frustrating to them,” she said. “But we want to get the right message out to people and be transparent.”
Health departments across the state took similar action, and Haushalter said the Tennessee Department of Health advised the mask handouts should stop. The issue centers around a product called Silvadur which was placed on the sock masks produced by Renfro Corporation.
Silvadur is registered as a pesticide with the EPA, and Haushalter said it's used as an antimicrobial for clothing to keep it from developing an odor.
But she told WMC Action News 5 Monday that her issue is how close the mask is to the face and whether that may be harmful to the wearer.
"I would stay stop wearing them until further notice," she said.
The state of Tennessee spent more than $8 million on the masks.
WMC Action News 5 reached out to Governor Bill Lee's office for comment.
“We have paused further distribution of free masks to county health department while further inquiry is pursued,” wrote spokesperson Gillum Ferguson.
Renfro Corporation, the maker of the masks, released a statement to WMC Action News 5 Monday evening, which said Silvadur when applied to “treated articles” is at such low levels that the fabric poses “negligible" risk to consumers.
“These face masks are made in accordance with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for non-surgical masks. Similar to face masks manufactured by other companies and supplied by other states, the Renfro face masks utilize DuPont’s SILVADUR 930 FLEX Antimicrobial. SILVADUR 930 FLEX Antimicrobial is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registered antimicrobial widely used for inhibiting microbial growth in order to reduce odor on textiles and garments,” the statement reads.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said the city is working with two democratic state lawmakers and have new masks on order they can distribute at libraries, like they were doing with the state masks.
For more information on the use of facial coverings, please call the Shelby County Health Department’s COVID-19 hotline (833-943-1658) or visit the Health Department’s COVID-19 webpage.