By Roni Leider
As a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, masks have been used worldwide to prevent the virus’s spread further. Consequently, there has been a drastic increase in overall plastic pollution since the beginning of the pandemic. Researchers have concluded that masks have introduced harmful toxins into the environment, and the ramifications will only escalate.
The increase in plastic pollution that has occurred due to the surge in mask usage could have serious adverse effects. There is evidence that many of these toxic pollutants are released when exposed to water. Masks are composed of various plastic and by-products of plastic material, containing an immense amount of pollutants, including lead, antimony, and copper.
When in the presence of ultraviolet radiation, the majority of plastic particles are photo-oxidized, meaning that they decompose into microplastic. Due to the cold and frigid temperature of the ocean, the deterioration process of these materials is relatively slow. It can even take more than 450 years, which is notable considering disposable masks are a “single-use” item. For something that is meant to be used once, it is ironic how long the item takes to decompose.
There are numerous negative impacts associated with the use of disposable masks. Scientific researchers have stated that alongside the negative environmental implications concurrent with mask pollution, public health may be at risk. This is because the substances found within the disposable masks have been associated with cell death, genotoxicity, and cancer formation. In other words, recurrent exposure to people can be harmful. These environmental threats will only intensify with time.
Furthermore, the adverse effects of plastic pollution caused by disposable masks also have a devastating impact on ocean life. According to Gary Stokes, Operations Director of Ocean Asia, “[p]lastic pollution kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, over a million seabirds, and even greater numbers of fish, invertebrates and other animals each year.” With all this in mind, it is unquestionable why direct or indirect mask ingestion causes respiratory and gastrointestinal problems for wildlife as well as death.
Many scientists believe that although masks are essential in slowing the spread of COVID-19, there needs to be more regulation and research on the production of masks. Some experts have even questioned whether or not disposable masks are safe, and some question whether masks should be continued to be used on a daily basis.