Toxic Mask Pollution - How You Can Help

Toxic Mask Pollution - How You Can Help

“Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” – William Wordsworth, 1798

Editor’s note: Since this article was written by meteorologist and biologist Neva Duncan Tabb in April, disposable mask pollution has worsened horrifically, damaging the health of people and the wildlife on whom we depend for a viable life.  See the video “More than 25,000 Tons of COVID-19 PPE Is Polluting Oceans,” November 19, by clicking HERE

Excerpt: “A new study finds the pandemic has led to more than 25,000 tons of plastic waste entering our oceans.” 

Irresponsible people, including a few here in WNC, are damaging our waterways and land. Walking at Lake Junaluska recently, we found masks dropped on the trail and down the bank, headed toward the swans, geese, ducks, and fish that make Lake Junaluska such a treasure to the community. 

Trash cans are available all around the lake. There is no excuse for such un-civic disrespect.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swelled and expanded across the globe, the common mantra echoed by governments became: Wash your hands! Practice social distancing! Wear a mask! 

Responsible citizens have adopted this mantra but, in our efforts to be good citizens and protect each other, we apparently have triggered the law of unintended consequences. Millions of tons of plastic masks and gloves float in our oceans, and waterlogged latex gloves and small bottles of hand sanitizer litter the ocean floor.

The glut of plastic waste has been well-documented, along with heart-breaking photos illustrating its threat to marine life. Species such as sea turtles and seabirds are starving or choking to death, entangled in plastic fishing line, stomachs distended with plastic waste. 

Add disposable mask and gloves to the estimated 14 million tons of plastic pollution entering our oceans annually and the situation becomes even more dire. A study in the Environment, Science & Technology journal estimates 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) expects 75% of used masks to end up in landfills or floating in the oceans.  Masks and gloves continue to wash up on beaches around the world, some attributed to carelessness, others apparently carried by wind from land, landfills and ships.

 This “COVID waste” has an estimated life of about 450 years – a long time to travel the globe, entangling marine life and soiling shores throughout its journeys.

Even more disturbing is the potential toxicity of these used masks. Think of the public health risks from infected used masks drifting in the atmosphere. In addition, disposing of COVID waste through open burning or incineration in waste treatment plants can also release toxins into the environment.

What you can do now: Either buy or make a reusable mask that expresses your personality, your beliefs, or your fashion style.  Even better—buy or make two or more. 

Keep a clean mask in your vehicle where you always remember to put it on in public or with someone who doesn’t live with you. For optimal protection, make sure it’s lined with a non-woven material. Wash it after every use. 

Instead of latex/rubber gloves, wash your hands frequently. Carry hand sanitizer in reusable containers. Masks can be made from common materials such as tightly woven cotton. Instructions are easy to find online.

Understand what can happen when we are careless. Exercise the maturity not to create another tragedy out of the current one.

Don't use face masks as a substitute for social distancing. Do both, and keep washing your hands.

Win-win-win:You’re reducing the dangers posed by the coronavirus to people you love. You’re protecting our oceans and shores simultaneously. Today’s babies and children can inherit a climate they can survive in. 

What you need to act now:  Buy, reuse, and wash permanent masks. Buy N-95 masks at hardware and home supply stores, decorative masks at shops.

Forbes Magazine recommends a number of sources, including designers:

For Willie Nelson fans:

For Jane Austen fans: The Republic of Pemberley

Who says—the experts:

From the Mayo Clinic:

UN News. (July 30, 2020). Five things you should know about disposable masks and plastic pollution.

Giuliani-Hoffman, F. (2020, June 24).Conservationists warn COVID waste may result in ‘more masksthan jellyfish’ in the sea.CNN.

Prata, J, (2020, June 12). COVID-19 Pandemic Repercussions on the Use and Management ofPlastics.Environmental Science & Technology, 5(13)

Neva Duncan Tabbis a meteorologist and science educator with an MA in Physical Geography (University of South Florida). She taught science at St. Petersburg College for over 25 years and for the past 15 years has taught physical geography at the University of South Florida. She lives half the year in WNC.                                                                                    

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