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Mask litter is a worldwide problem with serious environmental ramifications, study shows

 This mask, once used to protect its wearer from COVID, was discarded in the parking lot of a convenience store in Sarasota only 15 feet from a trash can.
Tom Bayles
This mask, once used to protect its wearer from COVID, was discarded in the parking lot of a convenience store in Sarasota only 15 feet from a trash can.

Researchers put a spotlight on the “skyrocketing” increase in discarded COVID masks and the "devastating" effect it is having on wildlife.

Discarded cigarette butts, cans and bottles have been fouling Florida’s beaches, preserves and parking lots for as long as people have been using such items, and now there is a new scourge being mixed in: discarded masks used to protect the wearer from COVID-19.

Masks come in many shapes and sizes, but one commonality is too many of them are being discarded everywhere except in a trash can.

Some were white but have been trampled by dirty sneakers and driven over by car tires so many times the masks are spotted brown, flattened and stuck to the pavement. Others were light blue, but now white fibers from the inside show through. Red ones shine so brightly they can be seen from far away.

Masks dropped to the ground are a threat to wildlife, and when washed into sewers they have the potential to clog sewage systems.

Mask litter is a worldwide problem with serious environmental ramifications.

A report published in the journal Nature Sustainability finds a “skyrocketing” increase in mask litter in 14 months in 11 countries, including the United States, a finding the authors called “devastating."

Mask litter "poses a big threat to the environment, potentially clogging drains and sewage systems; polluting rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans; entangling and poisoning wildlife; and leaching contaminants such as microplastics into the lower food chain," wrote Mary Van Beusekum, who summarized the report for the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

The authors found that in the four months prior to March 2021, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health emergency, the percentage of litter made up by masks, anti-virus wipes and plastic gloves was unchanged from the past at about 0.015% of all trash. After the WHO’s declaration, mask litter alone increased 9,000% from March to October.

"Our results suggest that, alongside addressing the threat to human health, targeted national-level pandemic responses are also necessary to address the threat to environmental health posed by related litter," the authors wrote. "As it is likely that higher mask use will continue following the immediate health pandemic, such responses must be sustained. “

The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, and Sweden were surveryed for the report published in December.

“There is a clear need to ensure that requiring the use of these items is accompanied with education campaigns to limit their release into the environment," said Keiron Roberts, the lead author and a faculty member of the School of Civil Engineering and Technology at the University of Portsmouth in Great Britain.

Certainly, educational awareness programs are an important aspect of addressing the problem of masks discarded anywhere but in the garbage. Roberts suggests a concern for the environment just isn’t enough.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by the VoLo Foundation.

Copyright 2022 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Tom Bayles