Face Masks: Meant to Protect, Not to Pose Threat


While wearing a mask has become part of our daily life, it is not without its own downsides. Citing downside, this writer is not referring to the breathing discomfort it causes.

As much as face masks are the most effective equipment to protect people from catching or spreading the deadly Corona virus, they can also be a source of environmental and human health threats if mishandled. With the massive production and use of face masks around the world, there came mask-littering – an emerging environmental and human health risk. Haphazardly thrown used face masks are known to pose health threat to humans, wildlife and birds. They could also spread the infection they are designed to protect against.

Disposable face masks were primarily made for the protection of health-care workers to prevent occupational hazards. However, following the outbreak of SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009, non-medical professionals adopted the use of face masks particularly in parts of Asia where the outbreaks occurred.

Meanwhile, face masks have never been used by a large number of people as they are today due to the fact that they are widely accepted and science-recommended means to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from one person to the other.

Disposable face masks are fundamentally layers of plastic materials produced from polymers such as polypropylene, polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, or polyester. When face masks decompose, they break down into smaller plastics ending up with terrestrial or aquatic environment, which will inevitably be health hazard to animals.

Disposable face masks that get to the environment through disposal landfills, dumpsites, freshwater, oceans or littering at public spaces could emerge in the form of microplastic fibers, for they can only break down into smaller pieces known as microplastics over time.

These tiny particles and fibers are often long-lived polymers that can accumulate in food chains. Researchers have found out that a single mask alone can produce millions of particles, each with the potential to carry chemicals and bacteria up the food chain and potentially even into humans.

Littered face masks have polluted popular beaches and recreational parks. They will later be economic problems as they reduce the flow of tourists to recreational destinations.

There is also a possibility for improperly discarded face masks to act as a medium for disease outbreak, as plastic particles are known to propagate microbes such as invasive pathogens. Cross-contamination of COVID-19 infection can occur from a discarded mask and surfaces which come into contact with.

Some suggest that the problem of face mask littering is made even worse by the fact that many people do not feel comfortable picking a mask up from the street to put in the bin due to the fear of coronavirus contamination.

According to the WHO’s health guidelines, soiled tissues and used face masks must be thrown only into lidded litter bins, however, not all countries have the capacity to properly deal with the sudden spike in mask and other clinical waste generated as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Face masks are here to stay and will continue to play a critical role in the global fight against the pandemic. In fact, available data show that the use of face masks has exponentially grown over time since the first time they were recommended to be worn universally to prevent its spread. While health experts have no shortage of guidelines on the proper utilization of face masks, there has been little attention given to the disposal of used masks. Many people need guide on how to dispose of or recycle masks safely. Otherwise, littered masks have grown to become a serious environmental and public health concern in many parts of the world.

As a result, many environmental activists and health experts are calling for governments to give attention to a strict implementation of medical waste management in relation to COVID-19 to reduce pandemic risk out of used masks.

With an estimated 129 billion face masks being used and disposed every month globally, the health and environmental risk from littered masks will obviously be enormous.

Hence, proper management of used masks should be promoted. Such efforts can also be researched to have an eco-friendly alternative that promotes effective waste management system and sustainable solution to plastic pollution. In relation to this, the United Nations recommends that governments need to promote the production of non-toxic, biodegradable and easily recyclable face masks, which use materials including natural fibers and rubber.

The Ethiopian Herald January 26/2021

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