A lot of problems have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic during the year, but probably the most overlooked one is the impact it will have on the environment as a result of the increased use of face masks and gloves, among other disposable items needed during the pandemic.
These are products hospitals need in bulk and wholesale and have been so highly requested that most distributors don’t have them for sale anymore in either online or physical stores in the United States. Some of the most affected items include surgical masks, KN95 masks, face shields, and gloves, and they’re also all big sources of pollution.
In this article, we’ll talk about N95 masks in specific, why they’re important and necessary right now, and how to dispose of them without contributing to water pollution.
How N95 masks work and their importance during the pandemic
N95 masks are also called N95 respirators and are crucial in the healthcare environment during the pandemic for the protection of their workers. They offer much higher virus protection than other types of face masks available, including surgical masks, because of the high antiviral filtering properties they show. For this reason, since the beginning of the pandemic, they’ve been considered the best choice for face masks in the healthcare field.
They’re respirators, a specific type of mask that has the ability to filter out very small particles present in many different work settings, referred to as respiratory hazards. This is because, when a human inhales them, their respiratory tract can become damaged. Respirators filter these particles out, preventing the user from inhaling them.
NIOSH, which is the acronym used to refer to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is the federal agency in the USA that regulates these types of masks, as part of their job to help workplaces across the country have a safe environment for their workers. To do this, they have a classification for respirators they use to regulate them.
This classification involves a naming system based on two properties: the respirator’s oil resistance, which is a direct reflection of their efficacy in filtering out particles with oil, and their particulate filtration efficacy. The first one is indicated with the letters N, R, or P, and the N means the respirator has no resistance to oil and, therefore, can’t filter out oil-based particles. The second one is indicated with the number 95, 99, or 100, which are the minimum percentages of airborne particles the respirators can filter out.
N95 masks can therefore filter out a minimum of 95% of the non-oil based airborne particles in the air, which includes particles like dust and smoke, but also viruses like the flu virus and, most importantly, the coronavirus. For this reason, they have been more prominent in the healthcare field this year, but they have many other uses.
As disposable face masks, they’re not designed to be reused, and especially in the healthcare field during the pandemic, they should only be used once and then properly discarded. However, their high demand and the shortages experienced across the country have led to healthcare providers having to decontaminate them and reuse them.
How to dispose of N95 masks without contributing to water pollution
Since respirators, including the N95 masks, are only recommended to be used by healthcare providers, the instructions on how to use them are issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since the beginning of the pandemic, this federal agency has been the main source of reliable information regarding this situation, including the proper use of face masks in both regular public settings and healthcare ones.
The CDC provides information on how to remove them safely, which involves handling them only by their straps without touching the inside or outside of the mask to avoid contamination. Afterward, the mask should be discarded on the corresponding container, which in healthcare fields, is properly signaled and professionals in the field are trained to locate them easily.
Outside the healthcare setting, N95 masks shouldn’t be used, as recommended by the CDC. However, if the situation came up in which you had to use one in public or at home, the Brazilian Sanitary and Environmental Engineering Association (ABES) has a useful recommendation for the disposal of any disposable face mask during the pandemic.
After removing it the same way the CDC indicates, place the respirator inside two plastic bags and then put it with the rest of the domestic waste or, if you’re in a public setting, in a public trash can. This ensures the workers who are handling the waste won’t be exposed to the mask directly, as they can represent a biological hazard.
Water pollution caused by face masks and other products
Since the earlier days of the pandemic, problems of beaches filled with face masks and other items related to the pandemic were reported in Hong Kong, as well as cities filled with disposable items in Greece and the United States. Even though the problems currently making the news are more alarming in the short term, the environment is also suffering the consequences of this pandemic in real-time.
We want to remind our readers to follow the recommendations made by the CDC to wear reusable cloth masks in public settings that don’t represent a high risk of exposure to the virus. These are cleanable and therefore don’t represent a high source for pollution, and can be safely used by kids over the age of 2.