Potentially hazardous chemical pollutants released from disposable masks when immersed in water have been identified by a Welsh survey. The researchers have called for urgent regulation and investigation of the pollutants.
The Swansea University College of Engineering researchers have identified high levels of pollutants – including lead, antimony and copper – in the fibers of common disposable masks of the kind commonly used by key workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We must all continue to wear masks because they are essential to ending the pandemic,” stressed Dr. Sarper Sarp, who led the study.
“But we also urgently need more research and regulation for the production of masks so that we can reduce any risks to the environment and human health.
” The increase in single-use masks and associated waste during the pandemic has been identified as a new cause of pollution. Last year, the UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub estimated that switching from single use to reusable masks could prevent 66,000 tons of contaminated plastic waste from being generated in one year.
The Swansea University study examined the characteristics of this waste and identified the level of toxins present.
They looked not only at single-use face masks, but also at new and festive masks for children and compared disposable masks from seven brands.
The researchers immersed the masks in water to simulate the masks that were left in the environment as litter and found significant levels of pollutants in all of the masks tested. In all tests micro plastics, nano plastics and heavy metals ended up in the water.
Their analysis identified the presence of lead, cadmium, antimony and various organic species in the leachate.
They concluded that this could have a significant impact on the environment and raised the question of potential harm to human health, warning that these pollutants – on repeated exposure – could be just as dangerous as those known to be is that they are related to cell death, genotoxicity and cancer formation.
The researchers recommended further research and subsequent regulations regarding the manufacturing and testing of these items.
“The production of disposable plastic face masks in China alone has reached about 200 million a day, in a global effort to stem the spread of the news SARS-CoV-2 virus,” saidDr.Sarp.
“However, improper and unregulated disposal of these [masks] is a plastic pollution problem that we are already dealing with and that will only increase. “There is a worrying body of evidence to suggest that [disposable masks] can potentially have a significant impact on the environment by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water.
Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bioaccumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show that they could be one of the main sources of these environmental pollutants during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It is therefore imperative that stricter regulations are enforced during the manufacture and disposal / recycling of [disposable masks] to minimize the impact on the environment.
” Dr. Sarp added that there is a particular need to understand the impact of silicon and plastic microfiber particles on public health, especially given that they can be easily detached from the masks and leach into the water without agitation, implying that they are mechanically unstable.
“A full investigation is needed to determine the amounts and possible effects of these particles entering the environment and the levels inhaled by users during normal respiration.
This is a major concern, especially for health workers, key workers and children who are required to wear masks for a large part of the work or school day, ”he said.