Putting on face masks, shields before faces, gloves, etc have become a new normal after being hit by the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) of 2020. Most of the countries have made it mandatory to wear a face mask to avoid the impact of the contagious disease. The way the deadly virus started spreading rapidly across international borders via human contact, wearing a face mask became the only solution to keep away from the infectious disease. Indubitably masks act as a barrier for stopping the spread of droplets coming out of the mouth while talking, coughing and that’s why covering the face with a mask has become a necessary task to refrain oneself from getting infected by others as well as transmitting the disease (of course if the person is symptomatic of COVID-19). But like everything else, the act of wearing and especially using masks implies a few negative consequences despite the positive ones. The disposable masks, face shields, gloves etc used as protective measures are dangerous to the planet as well as harmful to health.
How masks and other disposable items of the COVID pandemic are affecting the earth?
Just like plastic bags, now it has become very common to see discarded single-use face masks and gloves littering the streets. The coronavirus waste including the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is posing serious threat to the environment. This situation has now become very much evident in the countries still struggling to get rid of the disease. But apart from all other wastes the number of disposable or single-use masks are more responsible for polluting the planet as the use of masks have been made compulsory now. The discarded items such disposable masks, gloves, single-use bottles of sanitizers etc were found in the beaches of some countries which were again washed off by sea waves and have already reached the seabeds. Experts have warned about the increase of pollution in oceans after discovering the huge number of non-biodegradable wastes littering the seabeds.
The divers of Opération Mer Propre, a French non-profit organization which regularly cleans the area along Côte d’Azur by collecting litters found that dozens of gloves, masks, bottles of sanitizers are lying under the Mediterranean Sea along with the common wastes of disposable cups as well as aluminium cans. Joffrey Peltier belonging to the same organization described the waste comprising of the number of masks and gloves found underneath the sea to be “far from enormous”. Another instance was noticed in the Soko Islands of Hong kong by an environmental group called OceansAsia where they have found large number of surgical masks on the shoreline. Such a lack of consciousness are not only ruining a clean environment but also becoming very risky for the millions of aquatic animals living the seas which can consume the plastic materials by mistaking with their food because most of the masks are either carry or are manufactured with polypropylene. These materials don’t decay but breaks into the form of micro-plastics which can also easily get through the mouths of the marine animals and cause severe problems in their digestive systems.
A number of disturbing photos and videos of masks, gloves and other relatable items littered in the streets, underwater etc were taken from different places of the world which were later circulated in the social media for making the general public aware. This is undoubtedly indicating a new form of enhanced pollution. If nothing is done at present to curb the rising problem then it would be very difficult to control the alarming situation later. Mostly ocean and marine life would get affected as warned by the environmentalists. According to a study of 2018 by UN Environment it was found that around 13 million tonnes of plastic move to the oceans every year. Other estimates show that more than 100000 marine animals, turtles, sea birds die annually because of plastics going in the marine waters. A very touching post was shared by Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre in this context on a social media account which stated, “Knowing that … soon we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.” All the countries affected with COVID-19 have high chances of facing this situation. The concerned authorities and responsible citizens of the countries should act immediately to stop this estimated statement from becoming reality one day.
Another study suggested that in the UK if single-use masks are utilized by everyone a day in a year then it would release an increased amount of extra 66000 tonnes of contaminated waste along with 57000 tonnes of plastic packaging. This was estimated on the part of UK but the condition won’t be different in other countries if the present situation of dumping waste resulting from the pandemic crisis is considered.
Does putting on a face mask causes breathing issues?
While repetitive advises are given by the doctors and all other medical experts for the past 3-4 months to cover the face with a mask there also had been counter views regarding the use of face masks. Many people were seen opposing the decision of authorities for making mask wearing compulsory while stepping out of the houses. Videos of enraged people opposing the wearing of masks were also shared widely on social media. Some of them raised concerns about breathing issues while others talked about the inhalation of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other problems. But it is important to assess the claims carefully before jumping to conclusions because the global pandemic left no alternative way of protecting a person from the disease other than wearing a mask.
The anti-disinformation team of BBC examined the claims posted on social media and decided to share a few facts about the importance of wearing masks. Regarding the concern of “breathlessness” caused by a mask due to lack of oxygen, also known as hypoxia the BBC team shared valuable information. A person shouldn’t use a disposable mask twice or more once it gets damp. The medical masks should be adjusted to the face properly and made tight enough in a way that it doesn’t affect the breathing system. The WHO has already confirmed that properly wearing a medical mask neither leads to CO2 intoxication or deprivation of oxygen in the body. Clothe masks as well as thin paper masks don’t cause any problem in breathing. But it should also be kept in mind that clothe masks or paper masks must consist of sufficient layers (3 or 4 layers) to make it worthy of use for resisting the attack the virus.
There was no sufficient proof to support the claim of re-breathing the exhaled CO2 while wearing a mask. Masks are made with breathable materials to stop the droplets of coronavirus from entering the human body. CO2 molecules are way smaller than the droplets and won’t get stuck in a breathable material. Issues have been raised regarding the use of N95 masks also. But sources say that wearing N95 masks for long hours can affect a person mostly in cases of prevailing breathing problems already caused by smoking, obesity, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or asthma. N95 masks are usually for the frontline workers of coronavirus and it is not necessary for everyone to wear it. But all masks including the N95 has not yet found to be causing any serious problem among the users because a mask is not similar to a plastic bag that confines the circulation of air within.
Solutions of protecting the earth
As the global pandemic continues it is high time to introduce more and more renewable or reusable masks in the market which are healthy as well as sustainable. Such an initiative is urgent for the protection of the environment. Washable clothe masks can contribute towards the immediate need of a clean planet. Masks have become a mandatory thing to wear just like wearing shoes before leaving the house because it is only way to guard oneself from the deadly virus. Hence there is no question of avoiding masks but along with the pandemic situation the countries should be well aware of rising environmental issues and threats. The wastes of coronavirus are no doubt making the earth dirty and congested. The administration of the countries will have to act according to deal with the problems but general public should also understand the depth of the situation. There should be awareness campaigns regarding dangers of throwing disposable masks as well as other wastes in inappropriate places to make the citizens conscious.
When and where masks can be removed?
The present situation has left no other option of rejecting the use of masks even if few people out of the huge bulk of population faces some genuine problems. But a few suggestions can be helpful to the people with respiratory problems, lung disease etc who are actually facing issues with a mask. The people truly suffering from some problems and the ones finding it difficult to wear a mask continuously can put it off in an isolated place when no one is around. They can take deep breathes for a minutes after removing their masks and exhale slowly. This will increase the capacity of breathing. When a person is at home where he/she lives alone and it is possible to maintain sufficient distance from other members of the house then mask can be avoided. While jogging, running and doing any kind of physical exercise, it is not advisable to wear a mask because such activities involve loss of energy and giving out heavy breathes (more than normal). But it should be kept in mind that no other person is in close proximity. The ongoing circumstances compelled everyone to use masks and it cannot be avoided at any cost but one can be careful enough to wear a mask in such a way that it doesn’t suffocate him/her.