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'Really concerning': New study finds face masks, other PPE polluting waterways

Disposable face masks and other PPE are becoming an emerging source of microplastic pollution not just in Washington state, but around the globe.

SEATTLE — Face masks have become a way of life in the pandemic, and their ability to help slow the spread of the respiratory virus COVID-19 is key to keeping people safe until vaccines are widely distributed. But a new report looks at a side-effect of the widespread use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by the general public: plastic pollution in waters around the globe.

Tuesday, the Ocean Conservancy released new data gathered from volunteers all over the world on the group's beach and waterway cleanups in 2020. Their key takeaway – disposable masks are everywhere.

Based on observations from volunteers, the Ocean Conservancy found 107,219 items of personal protective equipment from July through the end of 2020. It believes that's just a small fraction of the actual prevalence, partially because the group only began categorizing PPE separately halfway through the year.

About 94% of those surveyed reported finding PPE at a cleanup in 2020, and 51% said they see it daily in their community. And 81% said the most common type of PPE encountered: face masks.

“This is the first time we have some very hard evidence to shed a spotlight on the magnitude of the PPE component of the plastic pollution issue, and really underscores how this is a new additive component to our existing global crisis,” said Nick Mallos, senior director for the group's Trash Free Seas program.

Though experts have warned of PPE pollution since the early days of the pandemic, it’s been a difficult issue to quantify beyond how many people experience it: stray discarded masks in grocery store parking lots, or stuck in a drain.

But anecdotally, the Washington Department of Ecology is noticing a similar trend of PPE litter, and is raising alarms.

“This was not a typical type of litter that we saw more than a year ago,” said Amber Smith, litter prevention coordinator for Ecology. “This is a brand new thing related to COVID, and it’s really concerning.”

She stressed this is rough, approximate data – but said Ecology litter cleanup crews are recording as many as 60 discarded masks per mile along Interstate 5 in some denser areas around King County. And since these small pieces of litter can be easily transported by rain or wind, they make their way into storm drains and streams.

“We really need everyone in Washington to work together to address our litter problem,” Smith said. “We need everyone in Washington to properly dispose of their masks when they’re done using them, putting them in a garbage can along with anything else.”

RELATED: 89% of King County residents are wearing masks in public, UW study finds

The most common disposable surgical masks are made of polypropylene, and contain spun fibers of plastic. They can't be recycled with existing equipment in most places. Experts said they should be thrown in a trash can with a lid so they don't blow away and become litter.

Single-use masks are an emerging source of microplastic pollution, according to a recent paper shared by the National Institutes of Health.

Pollution from microplastics in the world's oceans and waterways is of growing concern, with single use plastic packaging to blame. Small fibers and particles are widely found in drinking water, and such contamination can bio-accumulate in marine life, causing problems for the creatures themselves, and those higher up the food chain that consume them. Researchers believe masks could compound that issue, as the spun plastic fibers break down into smaller and smaller particles that evade filters.

Some studies have found humans eat about a credit card's worth of plastic every week, with varying potential health impacts. 

To be clear -- experts do not see this as a reason to stop wearing masks, which are key to controlling the spread of coronavirus. 

But, to help reduce the environmental impacts of masks, Mallos recommends a reusable mask in areas where that meets local health guidance, and if you do use disposable masks, snip the ear loops before throwing it out, to reduce the risk of tangling wildlife.

“So I don’t think PPE is going anywhere anytime soon,” said Mallos. “So again, it really underscores making sure that appropriate collection and appropriate disposal sites are available to manage and handle PPE, which is a necessary form of plastics use. But also at the same time, continuing to push aggressive policies that phase out and manage the rest of the plastic we use in our daily lives, a large subset of which are unnecessary, and for which we know there are suitable alternatives."

RELATED: VERIFY: KN95, N95, cloth, disposable. Which masks work best, according to the CDC?

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