Masks that helped save lives during the Cᴏ.ʀᴏ ɴ.ᴀ.ᴠɪ.ʀ.ᴜs ᴘ.ᴀɴ.ᴅ.ᴇᴍ.ɪᴄ have been found scattered around pavements, waterways and beaches worldwide since countries began mandating their use in public places to slow the ᴘ.ᴀɴ.ᴅ.ᴇᴍ.ɪᴄ’s spread.
Worn once, the thin protective materials can take hundreds of years to decompose. Animals, confusing C.O.V.ID – 1.9
waste for food or shelter, can easily become e.nsn.a.red or ch.ok.e on the straps of face masks.
Last summer, an i.nju.red seagull with legs entangled in a face mask was found h.obb.ling in the streets of Chelmsford in the UK. The animal welfare charity was alerted after the bird was spotted, motionless but still alive, and they took it to a wildlife hospital for treatment before its release.
“It’s clear the mask was there for some time and the elastic straps had tightened around his legs as his joints were s w.ol.len and s.o r.e,” said RSPCA inspector Adam Jones.
Similar in.c.id.ents have been reported all over the world. Macaques chewing the straps off tossed-aside face masks were also spotted in the hills outside Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur – a potential c h.oking h.az.a.rd for the monkeys. Even if the monkeys did not ch.ok.e, the ingested plastic could fill their stomach and cause them f.a t.al b.o w.el ob.stru.cti.ons.
Moreover, the biggest impact may be in the water, with green groups alarmed at the f.lo.od of used masks, latex gloves and other protective gear finding their way into already co.n.tami.nat.ed seas and rivers. Already there are signs that masks are worsening t.hr.e ats to marine life. More than 1.5 billion masks made their way into the world’s oceans last year, accounting for around 6,200 extra tons of marine plastic po.ll.ution, according to environmental group OceansAsia. French campaigners Operation Mer Propre found a d.e a.d crab e.nsn.a.red in a mask in a saltwater lagoon near the Mediterranean in September.
Larger animals, such as sea turtles, bigger fish and marine birds, are the ones immediately affected by the problem, but scientists are worried the impact will be felt on the entire food chain.
George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy says: “When those plastics break down in the environment, like all plastics break down in the environment, they form smaller and smaller particles and those particles then can impact pretty much the entirety of the food web, from the smallest animals to the largest animals”.
“Face masks aren’t going away any time soon – but when we throw them away, these items can h.ar m the environment and the animals who share our planet,” said Ashley Fruno of animal rights group PETA.
There has been a shift towards greater use of reusable cloth masks as the ?.??.?.??.?? has worn on, but many are still opting for the lighter single-use varieties.
Campaigners have urged people to bin them properly and snip the straps to reduce the risk of animals becoming e.nsn.a.red.
OceansAsia has also called on governments to increase fines for littering and encourage the use of washable masks.