‘If I did not help, I would regret it for the rest of my life’

Peter Tsai, who invented the technology for the N95 mask, has come out of retirement for another career-defining moment: He’s helping to preserve personal protective equipment (PPE) during the coronavirus pandemic. If he didn’t, he tells Yahoo Life, “I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

Tsai, 68, grew up on a family farm in Taiwan and studied chemical fiber engineering at the National Taipei University of Technology. The technology he developed in 1992 while a professor at the University of Tennessee would prove vital during the coronavirus pandemic. “This kind of respirator was for construction workers to protect them when they work in dusty environments,” he explains.

N95 respirators fit tighter than surgical masks and filter out 95 percent of airborne particles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The devices, which are used by medical professionals, have diminished during the pandemic as infections surge. Tsai’s electrostatically-charged fabric filters out micro-particles which improve the efficiency of N95 masks.

Although Tsai retired in 2018, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, he received a barrage of phone calls and emails asking for his help. “Too many for me to handle,” he tells Yahoo Life. The University of Tennessee re-hired Tsai — at 10 percent of his salary — and from his home laboratory, the professor brainstormed how to clean N95 masks for reuse while advising companies on production.

“If I could help, and I did not help, I would regret it for the rest of my life because people are dying,” he tells Yahoo Life.

The professor plugged away (losing ten pounds in the process), answering the phone day and night. But his handiwork happened in the kitchen — Tsai told the Washington Post that he boiled, steamed and baked the masks to attempt sterilization. According to the publication, Tsai discovered a dry-heat method that cleans the mask and preserves the technology.

In response to those who discourage face masks by claiming they cause medical issues, Tsai tells Yahoo Life, “Scientific data shows that if an infected person wears a mask then 95 percent of the virus is contained inside the mask. If an infected person does not wear a mask, a healthy person with a mask is only 30-40 percent protected.” He adds, “Everyone needs to wear a mask.”

The CDC has called cloth face masks “one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus.”

Tsai is looking forward to combating the coronavirus — and, like everyone else, life as we knew it. “I hope this pandemic can be over pretty soon and we can go back to our normal lives,” he tells Yahoo Life. “Working people go to work and retired people can enjoy their time.”

Video produced by Kat Vasquez.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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