Since the release of a number of Full-Face Masks (FFM) at DEMA in 2015, they have exploded in popularity with snorkellers worldwide. The masks make snorkeling feel much more natural due to a number of features including anti-fogging and the ability to breath through your nose (rather than your mouth with traditional snorkels).
There has been a growing concern over the safety of a number of these masks. After a recent spate of deaths of tourists in Hawaii, some of which were related to Full-Face Masks. HEAD/MARES – one of the manufacturers of full face masks – has started working with local Hawaii authorities to understand how these deaths have occurred and if there is any relation to Full-Face Masks.
With very little information available on the type and makes of the masks worn by the snorkelers involved in the accidents, HEAD/MARES have taken on specialized testing of various types of masks on the market to help determine contributing factors to the drownings. The testing involves measurement of potential CO2 buildup. This form of testing requires some specific machinery in the form of an ANSTI machine which HEAD/MARES have in-house in their rebreather manufacturing center in Belgium.
As background to their testing, HEAD has stated:
“While there are no specific standards for testing of full-face snorkel masks, HEAD referenced two European Union Norms, the EN250, and EN14143, standards widely used in the scuba diving industry and also adopted by US authorities such as NASA for the testing of full-face scuba diving masks.”
“CO2 buildup measured on the HEAD full face mask is at around 50% of the maximum allowed limits set by EN250 at a breathing rate of 10 liters per minute (slow and calm breathing) and at around 20% of the maximum limit when breathing at a rate of 62.5 liters per minute (e.g. breathing heavily with still deep breaths in a panic situation). In other words, the higher the stress level, the higher the breathing rate, and the better the mask performs.”
“The success of the HEAD full face snorkel masks has spawned a number of low-cost copycat masks from little-known companies whose expertise, design and manufacturing experience are unknown. These off-brand products are offered at attractive prices, but their performance and the nature of any research or testing that stand behind them, if any, is completely unknown.”
The results from the HEAD testing of a number of products can be seen below. As you can see, three of the four full face snorkel masks exceed the EN250 standard for CO2 exposure at low breathing rates, but they are all within limits for high breathing rates.
HEAD has reached out to the Maui Department of Fire and Public Safety and Hawaii State Dept. of Health and offered to assist in their investigations. Among other things, HEAD has provided its test results to the lead investigators in the Hawaii Dept. of Health and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and it has offered the use of its test facility and other assistance.
At this point, it is not clear what caused the recent drowning deaths in Hawaii. The only common factor other than the deaths occurred in the water was the age of the victims: 10 of the 11 drowning victims were men over the age of 50. Of the victims, two were scuba diving, three were using two-piece snorkel gear, two were swimming, two were using full face snorkel masks, and one was fishing from a jetty but found floating in the water.
It seems that more facts are needed to be able to draw any conclusions. However, it is to be noted that snorkeling, swimming, and other activities in ocean waters involve elements of risk, particularly to inexperienced and unsupervised swimmers who are not familiar with local waters or who may not be physically prepared for vigorous activity, but these risks have nothing to do with full face masks.
You can see a number of the masks on display from the DeeperBlue.com coverage of DEMA 2015 below.