Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is ending the state’s mandate that schools wear full body and face masks indoors.
While the legal definition of indoor air quality mandates masks be worn during good air quality, the topic of whether such mandates make air worse has become a central part of the national discourse on how to address the toxic emissions in statehouses, state capital buildings and school districts in the U.S.
The latest ruling came Friday after a 5-2 vote by the state Supreme Court to overturn a June 10 ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals saying that the regulations violate the U.S. Constitution. The case had been filed by Our Health Louisiana, the Louisiana Hospital Association and the LSU Physicians. Edwards was not a member of the court, but had supported upholding the policy.
“As the debate continues about the appropriate response to this issue, this is another way we can collectively improve air quality,” Edwards said in a statement Friday. “There are well-established public health and air quality protection policies that should help us all see significant improvements in air quality.”
Louisiana was the first state to mandate the use of masks indoors, in August 2015. (Vermont and Illinois were the other states in the national prohibition.) The governor had argued that when schools are dealing with toxic air, as is the case in most states, more frequent use of masks makes good sense. He also said that mask requirements have been shown to reduce the unhealthy conditions at schools.
In the Monday ruling, the Supreme Court said the health effects of polluting air come from factors outside the control of school districts, including cell phone use, traffic pollution and whether people are sick.
Some health experts argue that masks may do more harm than good. Their worry comes from allergic reactions, irritation and difficulty breathing in bright sunshine or air that is hotter than ordinary indoor air.
Elizabeth Shackelford, a toxicologist at the University of Tennessee, published a series of studies, arguing that although the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine does recommend mask use during elevated levels of air pollution, the issue of air quality requires a total overhaul of U.S. standards.
“Americans do not have a single, unified air quality problem,” Shackelford wrote in a 2015 paper. “We have a long history of failing to treat air quality like other public health concerns; we have failed to develop multiple, sensible responses to many challenges of air quality, such as identifying a baseline quality for all of our air; identifying a way to regularly evaluate our air quality; and making sure pollution is tracked and measured over time and from different sources.”