PPE and Pollution
Since the initial outbreaks of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19, in the Untied States from late February to mid-March, people have rushed to buy certain items, from anything to help in the preparing for lockdown to equipment to protect people from the spread. This meant that we saw mass buyouts of toilet paper, which increased steeply in price in the past few months, as well as skyrocketing prices for surgical masks and hand sanitizer -- that is, if you could find them. The change in status for PPE (personal protective equipment) from safety items used on construction sites or at high-risk jobs, to an everyday essential for anyone leaving their own home, has meant that items designated as PPE have been quickly bought, like N95 masks, used, and discarded for protection of health and safety. But with the increased manufacture, sale, and disposal of PPE, one begins to wonder, “How is this impacting the environment?”
At the end of June, CNN Climate’s instagram circulated a photo of PPE waste floating in the ocean, with the headline, “Soon there may be more masks than jellyfish in the sea, warns conservationist.” Pictures of divers holding blue exam gloves and gauzy, white surgical masks by the handful followed. Activists took to social media, reposting CNN’s post and urging increased awareness for coronavirus’s impact on the environment. Other environmental groups have also spoken out, relaying stories of finding masks washing ashore on beaches near Hong Kong, or begging governments to act so as to ensure a green recovery post-COVID by incentivising sustainability.
Over the past few months, several aspects of coronavirus have helped to increase the use of single-use plastics and materials, which are ending up in the ocean. In fact, some argue that coronavirus waste has become its own, new form of pollution. And it’s not hard to see why. With hospitalization rates for the virus hovering at about 4.6 per 100,000 people, averaged across the United States and all age groups, medical facilities have, at times, been bursting at the seams in the past few months. In some places, such as New York City, the virus hit so hard and severely that areas like Central Park and Billie Jean King National Tennis Center were converted to field hospitals with help from the U.S. Army. This was necessary -- hospitals were already operating over capacity, with two people per ventilator and work being done to convert anesthesia machines to makeshift ventilators, too. Other states, like California, reversed laws about retirement, asking recently retired health care workers to return so as to get all hands on deck in the face of the pandemic. Ventilators and staff weren’t the only medical necessities in short order -- hospitals everywhere faced a national crises of not having nearly enough masks and respirators, with some doctors and nurses having to come to work donning Halloween masks or bandanas to try to protect themselves and their patients from the spread of the potentially deadly virus.
With the healthcare system finding itself filled to the brim and in dire straits, it’s not hard to imagine the waste produced in the name of health and safety, trying to slow the spread, sanitize, and sterilize medical environments. When operating past capacity and trying to maintain safe and sterile environments free of SARS-CoV-2 germs, efficiency and safety need
to operate in conjunction. Enter: single-use, disposable examination gloves and surgical masks. Exam gloves, such as nitrile or latex gloves, are necessary when examining patients, as they provide a protective layer for the wearer, preventing them from being contaminated, but also prevent the wearer from contaminating their patient. In addition, they can be worn once and then thrown away between patients, donning a new pair per each patient attended to by a healthcare worker. As the gloves are disposed of, so are any germs now living on their exterior surface. The same goes for surgical masks -- put on when seeing a patient and promptly discarded afterward, they protect the healthcare provider and patient alike from spreading COVID-19 and other germs, while also being more safe and efficient than, say, cloth face coverings. Other medical PPE waste includes face shields and medical gowns, worn when treating or being treated for COVID-19. THis all means that literal millions of masks and pairs of gloves, as well as hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, and medication bottles are being thrown away every single day, contributing massively to an increase in single-use plastic pollution in oceans.
While the reasons, and perhaps even the need, for the increase in waste is clear in the face of the current coronavirus pandemic, it’s nonetheless frightening. But besides increasing the waste, coronavirus has perhaps aided in laying bare the threat that improper medical waste has posed to waterways for a long time. This threat has been a hot topic among environmentalists and conservationists for several years, thus pushing for the advent of several new reusable items, such as the metal straws whose emergence has been seen in the past few years, Swedish dishcloths, cloth or net grocery bags, and beeswax food wraps.
So what about with coronavirus waste -- are there any alternatives? As far as disposable items such as gloves go, nothing yet seems to be as safe or reliable as the disposable nitrile and latex options. However, masks are far more widely used and seem to be a greater pollution threat than other PPE, and there is certainly a better, more sustainable solution. While cloth masks are great, washable, and reusable, they don’t work as well as surgical masks. But, NIOSH N95 masks and respirators, such as those sold here at Clinical Supplies, work even better than the disposable surgical masks, and are reusable so long as they are taken care of. Therefore, opting for a safer alternative for yourself and your loved ones also means opting for a cleaner, brighter future, making the investment far in a way worth it.