Health protection measures throughout the pandemic have involved an enormous amount of one-use plastics. These include personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, gowns), take-home food packaging, test kits, syringes, wipes, and more, which have intensified the global plastic waste problem. Billions of disposable masks, most of which are made of a plastic called polypropylene, have been used and thrown away daily. Disposable N95 masks are designed to fit tightly, and the fibrous web of plastic captures microscopic particles to reduce virus transfer significantly. Covers made of double or triple-layer cotton, which are washable and reusable, also limit the spread of the virus. Studies have recently determined that looser fitting cotton masks are less effective than the N95 masks for the omicron variant of the coronavirus, a consideration for high-risk individuals and front-line workers.
Surgical and N95 disposable masks have recently been tested in a different context – to determine the extent of leaching/disintegration in water. This was done to simulate what happens once a mask enters surface waters, such as lakes and rivers, since so many masks pollute the environment. Researchers measured over a billion nano plastics (plastic particles smaller than a micrometer) and over a thousand microplastics (plastics 1 micrometer to 5 mm in size) released in water from a single disposable mask. Several studies have analyzed human nasal passages after the wearing of disposable masks. In all cases, plastic particles were present in nasal passages, and the amount was greater for higher breathing rates and wear times.
Addressing global emergencies is extremely difficult and requires the human family to work together for the greater good; we also need to utilize our full knowledge to avoid intensifying one global problem from the response to another and to fully consider Our Common Home. Well-fitting, multi-layered cotton masks and highly effective coronavirus vaccinations have kept many people safe without adding to the plastic pollution crisis. In the Laudato Si, Pope Francis states that when people are unconcerned about other aspects of nature, “our attitude will be that of master, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.”
Julie Peller, Ph.D., is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ). Julie has been writing a weekly column for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), and student and citizen participation in environmental work.