A new peer-reviewed study in the scientific journal Water Research has called for a full investigation into face masks as it raises serious questions about their safety for daily use and their impact on the environment.
The study, “An investigation into the leaching of micro and nano particles and chemical pollutants from disposable face masks – linked to the COVID-19 pandemic“, investigated the impact of disposable plastic facemasks (DPFs) on the environment by submerging masks from seven different manufacturers in water then testing the water for chemicals. The researchers found lead, cadmium, antimony and various plastic and organic substances in the water. They expressed concerns about the contribution disposable face masks are making to the world’s plastic problem.
While the focus of the study was on the impact on the environment, the authors were clear about the implications of their findings for the safety of masks for public health. They write: “The toxicity of some of the chemicals found and the postulated risks of the rest of the present particles and molecules, raises the question of whether DPFs are safe to be used on a daily basis and what consequences are to be expected after their disposal into the environment.”
The problems arise from both the toxicity of the chemicals present and how easily they detach from the mask. The authors call for a full investigation into the risks to the environment and public health.
There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPFs waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water. DPFs release small physical pollutants such as micro and nano size particles; mainly consistent with plastic fibres and silicate grains, which are well documented to have adverse effects on the environment and public health. In addition to the physical particles, harmful chemicals such as heavy metals (lead, cadmium and antimony), and organic pollutants are also readily released from the DPFs when submerged in water. Many of these toxic pollutants have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and this research shows 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 minimise the environmental impact of DPFs.
Secondary to environmental concerns, there is a need to understand the impact of such particle leaching on public health, as all DPFs released micro/nano particles and heavy metals to the water during our investigation. One of the main concerns with these particles is that they were easily detached from face masks and leached into the water with no agitation, which suggests that these particles are mechanically unstable and readily available to be detached. Therefore, 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 mandated to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day (6–12 hours).
The full article is behind a paywall but the abstract is publicly available and can be found here.
Looks like the makings of another public health calamity with the potential for some very expensive litigation. If I was in Government, given how weak the evidence is for their effectiveness, I’d be looking at phasing face masks out round about now.
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