Disposable Face Masks Releasing Toxic Chemicals – Study

Masks may take up to 450 years to degrade

Image Credits: Wang Jilin/VCG via Getty Images.

A new study out of the UK has shown that disposable facemasks may be releasing toxins such as lead, antimony and copper upon exposure to water.

The new research is alarming, given the astounding quantities of face masks that have been produced – and are being disposed of – as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

As well as the potential to cause damage to the marine environment in particular, this new research also suggests that such disposable facemasks may pose a health risk to humans as well.

We’ve already looked at some of the health risks associated with wearing disposable facemasks, including impaired breathing and the possibility of inhaling microplastics, but these new findings are potentially far more serious for wearers.

Disposable facemasks: leaching harmful chemicals

In 2020, production facilities, mainly in China, produced over 52 billion disposable facemasks.

Although they are supposed to be “single-use” items, estimates show it could take up to 450 years for these facemasks to degrade. An estimated 1.56 billion masks entered the world’s oceans in 2020, potentially as much as 6,240 metric tons of plastic. 

As well as the physical problems these masks present, for instance ending up in the stomachs of larger sea creatures like whales, they also appear to be spreading harmful toxins into the environment.

This new research, from the University of Swansea, focuses on the way disposable face masks release toxic chemicals when they are exposed to water.

A team of scientists analyzed seven different brands of disposable face masks. They soaked all the masks in water to model the actual environmental circumstances for those that end up as trash or litter.

Results revealed traces of heavy metals like lead and other toxins, including carcinogenic chemicals, in the water.

“Improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs [disposable plastic facemasks] is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify,” says lead researcher Dr. Sarper Sarp of Swansea’s College of Engineering, in a University press release.

“There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPF waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water.

Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show that DPFs could be one of the main sources of these environmental contaminants during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is, therefore, imperative that stricter regulations need to be enforced during manufacturing and disposal/recycling of DPFs to minimize the environmental impact. There is also a need to understand the impact of such particle leaching on public health.”

Dr Sarper goes on to state that “a full investigation is necessary to determine the quantities and potential impacts of these particles leaching into the environment, and the levels being inhaled by users during normal breathing. This is a significant concern, especially for health care professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day.”

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