Researchers have demonstrated that normal breathing can transport viruses in saliva droplets up a distance of up to 2.2 metres in 90 seconds.
The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control recommend social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID. The distances are estimated from various studies, but there is a need for further research into how viruses are transported from one person to another.
Previous studies considered aerosol transport after coughing or sneezing, while this study focused on normal human breathing, using computer simulations with a more realistic model than prior studies. A normal breath produces periodic jet flows that contain saliva droplets, but those jets’ velocity is less than a tenth that of a cough or sneeze.
Wearing a face mask greatly reduces the distance which these droplets can travel. Saliva droplets restricted by a mask had travelled only 0.72 metres after two minutes, far short of the distance of 1.8 metres suggested by the CDC.
The investigators found even normal breathing produces a complex field of vortices that can move saliva droplets away from the person’s mouth. The role of these vortices has not previously been understood.
Study author, Ali Khosronejad, American Institute of Physics said: “Our results show that normal breathing without a facial mask generates periodic trailing jets and leading circular vortex rings that propagate forward and interact with the vortical flow structures produced in prior breathing cycles.”
This complex vorticity field can enable the transport of aerosol droplets over long distances despite the slow speeds. A face mask serves to dissipate the kinetic energy of the jet produced by an exhaled breath, thereby disrupting the vortices and limiting the travel of virus-laden droplets.
The researchers also took into account evaporation of the saliva droplets. With no mask, they found the saliva droplets near the front of the plume of exhaled breath had partially evaporated, reaching a size of only one-tenth of a micrometre. In stagnant indoor air, it would take days for droplets this small to settle to the ground.
Masks partially redirect the exhaled breath downward, significantly restricting forward motion of the plume, so the risk of suspended droplets remaining in the air is substantially reduced.
“To simplify the breathing process, we did not consider the flow of air-saliva mixture through the nose and solely accounted for the flow through the mouth,” Khosronejad said. “In future studies, we will explore the effect of normal breathing via both the nose and mouth.”
Journal reference: Khosronejad, A., et al. (2021) A computational study of expiratory particle transport and vortex dynamics during breathing with and without face masks. Physics of Fluids. doi.org/10.1063/5.0054204.