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Gov. Lee: Free state masks pose no health threat, are being distributed once again

Renfro Corp. issued a statement earlier this month saying its masks were safe, disputing a Nashville TV report.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Gov. Bill Lee said the state is once again distributing free cloth masks to the public after getting clearance from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

A Nashville TV station reported last month that the free masks contained a microbial that had been cited as potentially threatening to human health.

Mask-maker The Renfro Corp., based in North Carolina, objected to the report, saying its masks were safe. It said the station misidentified the microbial that was being used on its masks.

The EPA has confirmed the Tennessee masks are safe as treated. Renfro operates a plant in Cleveland, Tenn.

Lee said Wednesday at a press briefing that the masks were fine, and he encouraged the public to wear masks when out in public.

Renfro issued a statement Wednesday afternoon:  “We have had full confidence in our product all along and are very thankful that Tennesseans will once again have access to face masks to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. These masks, which we stepped up to produce at a time the country needed them, have been a sincere source of pride for me, and for Renfro as a whole. We thank Governor Lee for taking the additional steps to confirm the safety of our masks."

The state planned to buy some 5 million of them for free distribution. Knox County had given out more than 143,000 before halting distribution after concerns raised by the TV report.

PREVIOUS STORY: The maker of a face mask purchased by the state and handed out for free to thousands of Knox Countians and millions of Tennesseans says their product is safe and contains nothing that poses a health threat.

Renfro Corp. issued a statement Tuesday, a day after Knox County announced it had stopped handing out the masks and days after a Nashville TV station raised questions about the use of an antimicrobial in the product.

"The face masks manufactured by Renfro and provided to Tennessee communities are harmless to human health and are serving the specific purpose outlined by U.S. and State of Tennessee health officials," the statement reads.

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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the state announced plans this spring to buy some 5 million of the black-cloth, sock-like masks from Renfro for free distribution. So far, Knox County Health Department or its partners have given out more than 143,000.

Wearing a masks is one way the public can help stop the spread of the highly contagious virus, experts say.

WTVF in Nashville reported Friday that the masks were treated with a pesticide called SILVADUR. The chemical may be detrimental to human health, the station reported.

Knox County Health Department officials announced Monday that they'd stopped handing out the masks after becoming aware of the Friday report. They said they were awaiting further word on whether the masks were safe.

The state also has suspended distribution of the face masks. Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Department of Health, said the state is conducting its own review.

The state is leaving it up to consumers as to whether they want to use the mask, and it says right now all indications are that the substance used on the cloth isn't harmful.

According to Renfro, the TV report misidentified what was used to treat the masks. Here's more on what they said.

"Renfro Corporation face masks utilize DuPont’s SILVADUR™ 930 FLEX Antimicrobial (EPA Reg. No. 464-785). The news article erroneously provided links to a different EPA Registration for SILVADUR TM (EPA Reg. No. 707-313). This inaccuracy has resulted in considerable misinformation being spread to the public," the company said Tuesday.

Other companies use the same product on their face masks, according to Renfro. The EPA doesn't feature warnings for the SILVADUR 930 FLEX antimicrobial about possible inhalation problems, skin contact risks or potential eye damage as the TV report stated, Renfro said.

The Knox County Health Department said Tuesday it would review Renfro's response to the WTVF story.

The SILVADUR 930 FLEX Antimicrobial is used in pillow cases, towels and athletic wear, among other items, according to Renfro.

Renfro has manufacturing facilities in Cleveland, Tenn., Alabama and North Carolina.

"We are proud that our Company stepped up during this pandemic to provide a much-needed product in the fight against COVID-19. We are an American company trying to help people stay healthy and reopen the country," its statement reads.