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How Gloves & Face Masks Are Polluting The Planet

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They may make you feel safe. But it seems gloves and face masks could be polluting the planet more than they’re worth. Image above by Reuters

By Diane Small

By now, we all know that plastic pollution has become a worldwide crisis, to the extent that today this toxic substance makes up 40% of the world’s ocean surfaces and is killing all marine wildlife. Creatures from turtles to sharks are constantly found dead from ingesting and getting caught in plastic. This harrowing situation has led to a change in our behaviour.

For example, the rise of plastic-free businesses gaining momentum, and most of us use recyclable bottles rather than buying single use bottles of water in plastic. We shun straws, and we have banned microparticles of plastic in facial scrubs.

Given all this, 2019 was a very promising year in terms of shaping a future that would reduce the amount of plastic on our planet. That was the same year the European Parliament approved a law to ban single-use plastic by 2021 in the EU. Meanwhile all over the world countries were banning plastic bags in supermarkets, from New Zealand to Papua New Guinea.

But little did we know that at the end of that constructive year, a virus from China would have led to the incredible rise of a new kind of plastic pollution: that from disposable masks and gloves.

How Gloves & Face Masks Are Polluting The Planet

Undoubtedly, lockdowns have diminished carbon emissions, as shown by the images worldwide. In India the air became so clean that you could finally admire the Himalayas for the first time in decades.

And in many countries, wildlife took over urban areas, like the goats in the Welsh town of Llandudno or the deers in the Japanese city of Nara, who started to wander through city streets and subway stations.

Despite these positive stories, the lockdown has also managed to do enormous harm to our planet by dumping single-use masks and gloves into landfill and the oceans.

While you may not think a little mask could do so much damage, consider this: almost every single human on this planet, rich or poor, healthy or sick,  has been badly advised to wear a mask – from India to Italy. Let’s assume that’s around 7bn people. Now let’s assume some of those people, let’s say, half – have bought more than one mask. That’s over 10 billion plastic based masks destined for landfill! And that doesn’t even count the plastic gloves.

They may feel like paper, but in fact, the face masks you see most people wearing today are made of three-ply polypropylene, a form of plastic.

The alarm on the impact of these masks on the environment was triggered by the French NGO, Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) after they noticed hundreds of masks and gloves washed ashore on French beaches. The organisation warned how there could soon be “more masks than jellyfish” in the waters of the Mediterranean (and there are a lot of jellyfish in that sea!).

These conservationists are stressing how the use of these masks could initiate a surge in ocean and ground pollution. The situation is especially dire, considering a disposable mask has a lifespan of around a whopping 450 years.

It has been estimated that even 1% of masks that are not properly disposed of are enough to have a disastrous impact on our planet. To put this into clearer numbers, this tiny percentage translates into approximately 10 million masks, corresponding to a huge 40 thousand kilos of extra plastic in the environment.

Face masks are polluting our planet in a terrible way – and for what?

The Questionable Effectiveness of Masks 

While some believe that masks can stop the spread of the disease, experts are now saying that is not the case.

In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) insists that wearing masks and gloves as a precaution against coronavirus is ineffective, unnecessary for the vast majority of people, and may even spread infections faster.

That makes sense, given that in order to stay healthy, we need to breathe in fresh air. Wearing a mask, however, impedes the amount of oxygen you breathe in, and increases the amount of CO2 you inhale. Unless you’re a plant, excess carbon dioxide is bad for your health and can lead to hypercapnia. Also known as carbon dioxide toxicity, symptoms include an altered mental state, loss of consciousness, an irregular heartbeat, breathing difficulties, and dizziness.

What’s more, in some cases, face masks are polluting the very air you breathe, as they accumulate bacteria and saliva from your mouth, as well as external pollution particles. They should therefore be changed at least daily for a new one for them to do any good at all. For medical professionals, they should be changed much more frequently. The CDC recommends doing so every 20 to 60 minutes, for example!

Not wearing a mask properly – washing your hands first before applying, not touching them at all, ensuring they are perfectly fitted, not re-adjusting it once it’s on – can lead to a false sense of security, believing you are protected from the virus. But the opposite may be true.

“People are always re-adjusting their masks and that has the potential to contaminate them,” said France’s head of health, Jerome Salomon.”If someone has come across the virus, it’s surely going to be on the mask.” Although many people have been told they should wear a mask in case they are an ‘asymptomatic carrier’ of the disease, the fact that they may be healthy and then pick up the virus on their mask nixes that advice. Furthermore, Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) technical lead for COVID-19, said at a press briefing on June 8 that asymptomatic transmission is “very rare” in any case.

That being said, the WHO does state that it may be advisable to wear a protective mask in public if you suspect you are infected or someone you are caring for is. But more importantly, in both those cases, they insist the best action to take is to just stay home.

I get that this is confusing. For months, researchers have warned that people without any COVID-19 symptoms could still be silent carriers of the disease, and they insisted that social distancing and wearing a mask, were essential even if you feel fine. But that initial advice has proven to be wrong.

It seems cases of Coronavirus have dropped significantly all over the world, but if you are still afraid of getting it, a mask won’t help much, if at all. “There are limits to how a mask can protect you from being infected and we’ve said the most important thing everyone can do is wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face, observe very precise hygiene,” said WHO’s emergencies director Mike Ryan.

What Do Gloves Do?

The story is no different when it comes to medical gloves. At the beginning of the pandemic, several countries were obliging people to wear them in supermarkets and other public places. But the World Health Organization has always advised against the use of gloves, because they “may increase the risk of infection, since it can lead to self-contamination or transmission to others when touching contaminated surfaces and then the face.

Amesh Adalja, from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security agrees, and told AFP: “If people cannot stop touching their face, gloves will not serve a purpose.”

If you think about it, this is common sense: medical gloves collect germs as much as your hands, and unless you wash them every time you touch something they aren’t safe.

Nonetheless, many have been told by the media to fear touching surfaces because the Center for Disease Control (CDC) initially said that the Coronavirus could live for hours on any hard surface. Since then, they have quietly revised their position and now say the virus does not spread easily from contaminated surfaces. 

The change to the CDC website, without any formal announcement or explanation, concerns Angela L. Rasmussen, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. She says: “A persistent problem in this pandemic has been lack of clear messaging from governmental leadership, and this is another unfortunate example of that trend.”

It seems “quarantining” mail and wiping down shopping carts, plastic packaging and even produce with disinfectant is absolutely unnecessary. As is the wearing of plastic gloves.

The bottom line? Frontline workers should be wearing disposable gloves and throwing them out as soon as their job of sanitising surfaces or treating patients is done. But the rest of the population has no need for them at all. Just wash your hands!

Conclusions

It’s unfortunate that some countries, like the UK, will force people to wear masks, even though the WHO has repeatedly said doing so is pointless in protecting people from Coronavirus. The effects of this will be disastrous for our planet, and can even harm our health.

Some airlines are also threatening that those who refuse to wear a mask will not be allowed to board. Some ride-hailing services are making changes to their policies to make it mandatory for employees and patrons to wear a face mask. In some countries, you can be fined for not covering your nose and mouth. In others, you can be refused entry. Certain shops are also refusing to allow customers in unless they are wearing a useless face covering.

Personally, I would refuse to shop anywhere that mandates a mask, and there’s no way I would limit the oxygen I’m breathing by wearing a mask on a plane (where air quality is already questionable).

If you must wear a mask, your best bet is to buy a reusable one made from cotton that can be washed. And then wash it every day in soap and hot water, and wash your hands before applying it.

But more importantly, we must all stand up and say NO to nonsensical mask wearing rules, which go against science, do little, if anything, to protect our health, and contribute to polluting our planet.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

Diane Small

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