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Millions of cloth facemasks distributed by the federal government in Belgium in 2020 may contain toxic chemicals according to a newly-leaked report from Sciensano, the Belgian Institute for Public Health.

The Belgian government purchased 15 million Avrox masks and dispensed them through private pharmacies to its 11.5 million citizens. However, due to additional mask sales and delivery efforts by local authorities and private companies, only an estimated third of the federally-distributed masks were actually used.

The masks were produced in Asia by Luxembourg firm Avrox and now an investigation is underway following complaints from rival Belgian mass manufacturers about the possible contamination of the Avrox masks with toxic nanoparticles of silver and with titanium dioxide, used to dye the masks white.

If these toxic nanoparticles are indeed found to be present, then Belgians who wore the government-issued masks may suffer respiratory tract damage.

Toxicologists are warning that people who wore the masks may now be at heightened risk of developing pneumonia, especially if they already have underlying respiratory problems.

"Sooner or later you can ingest these nanoparticles, especially if the mask is washed and worn regularly. They can easily end up in the lungs and blood," toxicologist Alfred Bernard said.

Safety concerns were raised at the time the initiative was announced and a subsequent fraud investigation has been launched into the €40 million deal as the parties behind it are believed to have a pre-existing relationship.

"These are the first results of the first phase of a study and it is important to interpret them with caution," Sciensano said in a press release following the leak.

"Based on the current data, it cannot be determined whether these nanoparticles actually come out of the masks and to what extent the users are exposed to them."

According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, Belgium has recorded over 763,000 cases of Covid-19 resulting in over 22,000 deaths.