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A woman's eyeglasses are fogged up as she wears a face mask during a snowfall in Beijing, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. China's death toll from a new virus increased to 304 on Sunday amid warnings from the World Health Organization that other countries need to prepare in the event the disease spreads among their populations as more nations report local infections. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Researchers at the University of Alberta have developed a virus-killing salt coating that’s designed to improve the effectiveness of the common surgical masks often used to prevent the spread of pathogens like influenza or the new coronavirus.

The sodium chloride coating applied to the surface of the surgical mask is designed to kill any virus particles which can otherwise survive for up to a week -- a risk researchers say the average person isn’t aware of.

“Viruses can survive on the surface [of a mask] for a few hours, to a week -- and improper handling can cause transmission of the disease,” Hyo-Jick Choi, chemical and materials engineering professor at the University of Alberta, said during an interview on CTV’s Your Morning Wednesday.

“People have a tendency to touch their face every four minutes and contaminated hands can easily spread the disease from person-to-person and contaminate other surfaces.”

Surgical masks have become a common sight in Canada and around the world since the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus spread outside China last month. Many pharmacies around the country have already sold out of the masks and consumers have reported skyrocketing prices for various models online in the midst of the outbreak.

But Choi says improper use of these masks can actually increase the risk of transmission.

According to Choi, neither mask nor respirator is capable of killing a virus; which means, once contaminated, viruses can live on the surface of the filter for up to a week.

The salt coating, which has been under development since 2015, essentially works to kill any particles of the virus it comes into contact with.

“When virus-carrying water droplets sit on the surface, the salt dissolves and water begins to evaporate,” he explained. “During the evaporation process the salt crystals begins to grow and a very sharp edge of the crystal basically destroys the virus.”

Choi's team -- supported by Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada -- has tested the coating on three different influenza viruses, all of which became inactive within 30 minutes of being exposed to the sodium chloride.

Based on these results, Choi expects the product to be manufactured in the next 12 to 18 months.

In the meantime, as fears surrounding coronavirus’ spread grow, Choi says it’s imperative that the general public learn the proper way to use surgical masks and respirators.

“We have to understand that with surgical masks we have to replace them with a new one every few hours,” he said, noting that the masks are essentially useless if re-used.

The most common face masks are loose surgical masks with elastic loops that go around the ears. The masks cover the mouth without creating a seal around it. One side is generally coloured blue, and is meant to face outwards. The top of the mask has a metal strip to mold to the bridge of the nose.

When putting a mask on, Choi notes you must ensure a good fit for the mask to be effective, which means molding the metal strip to fit around your nose and fanning the mask out to cover your mouth properly.

It’s important to never touch the mask itself when removing or handling it and take it off by touching the ear loops only.

Lastly, be mindful of how you dispose of the mask, keeping in mind that any surface it comes into contact with could transfer potential virus particles.