How does disposing of your masks hurt aquatic life?

This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of face masks has been one of the most prominent topics of discussion. Disposable face masks are some of the most used in the healthcare setting, where face masks are most needed, and the impact these types of masks can have on our environment may already be showing.

Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are needing to buy these types of face masks in bulk and wholesale. The demand is so high that the United States has been struggling with shortages since the beginning of the pandemic, and now they’re very difficult to find for sale in both physical and online stores.

Aquatic life might suffer some of the worst consequences from this situation, and in this article, we’ll discuss everything related to this situation.

What are disposable face masks?

Disposable face masks are a type of mask that, as the name suggests, is not reusable. This means they’re intended for single-use only and are discarded after each use. The filtering and protective properties of these types of masks start to get lost after being used for some time due to the moisture created by the wearer’s mouth and nose while they breathe.

One of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) in healthcare centers across the United States. As a result, the decontamination and reuse of face masks intended to be disposable has been a common practice, although the use of a new respirator or face mask is always the preferred option.  

Which are the most used ones right now?

Let’s start with N95 masks, which have been considered the best type of face mask for virus protection in the healthcare field among all the reusable and disposable face masks available. This is because their filtrating abilities give them very high antiviral properties that exceed those in other types of face masks, and they’ve been so requested that they’ve also become one of the scarcest items needed by hospitals during the pandemic.

Their high efficacy for viruses is the result of their 95% filtration rate for particles that are airborne, which means they have a size of 0.3 micrometers and don’t contain oil, which includes viruses like the SARS-CoV-2, the one responsible for COVID-19, as well as the flu virus. But, these masks have other uses outside the healthcare field, as they can also filter out particles like dust, coal smoke, pollen, metals, and other bioaerosols.

Another disposable face mask, which people often confuse with N95 masks, are the KN95 masks. These are also respirators with no oil resistance and a filtration rate of 95% against airborne particles, which in theory make them as efficient as N95 respirators. However, these masks can’t be used interchangeably in the workplace since KN95 masks are regulated by Chinese standards, while N95 masks are regulated in the USA.

The other type of face mask that is widely used in the healthcare field even before the pandemic began is the surgical mask. These blue and white face masks are widely recognizable since we often see them being used by healthcare providers, including dentists, doctors, and nurses.

These masks offer protection for the wearer but also for the people around them since they’re typically used during surgeries and other types of medical procedures. They prevent any solid or liquid material that might be released during the procedure and that might be contaminated from reaching the mouth and nose of the wearer. They also filter out certain particles that are larger and aren’t efficient for virus filtration.

Water pollution and the impact on aquatic life disposable face masks have

Besides just making our oceans dirty and looking gross, and be an inconvenience when you go to the beach, waste in our oceans are extremely dangerous to marine ecosystems. It can smother the environments and break up ecosystems, and some animals can mistake them for food and try to eat them, leading to them choking on the litter or becoming malnourished since these materials fill their stomachs but provide no nutrients to them.

Smaller animals can become entangled within the gloves or masks when they start to degrade and break apart. Particularly plastic can take a long time to degrade, and as they do they start to break down into smaller pieces. The longer it sits in the oceans the more it breaks down, first into microplastics and then nano plastics which are particles and fibers so small they can accumulate in food chains. Just imagine the number of particles only one mask can produce, each one with the potential to carry bacteria and chemicals to the food chain of the aquatic life, which can eventually reach humans.

How to help this situation

Here are 3 tips to prevent this from getting worse:

  1.   The general public doesn’t need to use disposable face masks, reusable cloth masks are effective for virus control in public situations that are not in a healthcare environment.
  2.   Always bring a spare cloth mask with you so you don’t have to buy a disposable one.
  3.   If you absolutely have to wear a disposable face mask, make sure to place it in a trash can. Don’t litter!

For the general public, the CDC recommends the use of cloth masks, which are cleanable and reusable. These are considered enough for public settings with a low risk of exposure to the virus, always in combination with social distancing rules. These masks can be used by kids above the age of 2, and don’t represent a big source of water pollution. 

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