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Masks used to protect people from COVID-19 are becoming a worldwide threat to wildlife

 This face mask, once used to protect its wearer fro mCovid-19, was discarded in the parking lot of a convenience store in Sarasota only 15 feet from a trash can.
Tom Bayles
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This face mask, once used to protect its wearer fro mCovid-19, was discarded in the parking lot of a convenience store in Sarasota only 15 feet from a trash can.

A report published finds a “skyrocketing” increase in mask litter, a finding the study’s authors called “devastating."

Discarded cigarette butts, empty cans and bottles have been fouling Southwest Florida’s beaches, preserves and parking lots for as long as people have been using such items, and now there is a new scourge being mixed in: discarded face masks used to protect the wearer from Covid-19.

Masks come in many shapes and sizes, but one commonality is too many of them are being discarded everywhere except in a trash can.

Some were white, but have been trampled by dirty sneakers and driven over by car tires so many times the masks are spotted brown, flattened and stuck to the pavement. Others were light blue, but now white fibers from the inside show through. Red ones shine so brightly they can be seen from far away. Used masks dropped to the ground are a threat to wildlife small and large, and when washed into sewers they have the potential to clog sewage systems.

“Mask litter” is a worldwide problem with serious environmental ramifications.

A report published in the journal Nature Sustainability finds a “skyrocketing” increase in mask litter in 14 months in 11 countries including the United States, a finding the study’s authors called “devastating."

Mask “litter poses a big threat to the environment, potentially clogging drains and sewage systems; polluting rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans; entangling and poisoning wildlife; and leaching contaminants such as microplastics into the lower food chain,’ wrote Mary Van Beusekum, who summarized the report for the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

The study’s authors found that in the four months prior to March 2021, which is when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health emergency, the percentage of litter made up by masks, anti-virus wipes and plastic gloves was unchanged from the past at about 0.015% of all trash. After the WHO’s declaration, mask litter alone increased 9,000% from March to October.

"Our results suggest that, alongside addressing the threat to human health, targeted national-level pandemic responses are also necessary to address the threat to environmental health posed by related litter," the authors wrote. "As it is likely that higher mask use will continue following the immediate health pandemic, such responses must be sustained. “

Countries surveyed in the study were the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, and Sweden. The report was published in December.

Keiron Roberts, a faculty member of the School of Civil Engineering & Technology at the University of Portsmouth in England, is the lead author of the study: “There is a clear need to ensure that requiring the use of these items is accompanied with education campaigns to limit their release into the environment," he said.

Certainly, educational awareness programs are an important aspect of addressing the problem of face masks discarded anywhere but in a garbage container. Roberts suggests a concern for the environment just isn’t enough.

Should it really take international education efforts to instill in people that harm is being done to the environment when people do not throw trash in a trash can?

The answer, when it comes to used face masks, is the same all over the planet: apparently so.
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Tom Bayles