Scientists find lead, nanoplastics in disposable face masks fibres

·3-min read

Scientists at Swansea University have uncovered potentially dangerous chemical pollutants that are released from disposable face masks when submerged in water.

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.

A health worker (R) talk to a Covid-19 coronavirus patient inside the Common Wealth Games stadium temporarily converted into the Covid-19 Coronavirus care centre in New Delhi on May 5, 2021. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP) (Photo by MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images)
A health worker (R) talk to a Covid-19 coronavirus patient inside the Common Wealth Games stadium temporarily converted into the Covid-19 Coronavirus care centre in New Delhi on May 5, 2021. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP) (Photo by MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images)

The research reveals high levels of pollutants:

  • Lead

  • Antimony

  • Copper

These were found within the silicon-based and plastic fibres of common disposable face masks.

"All of us need to keep wearing masks as they are essential in ending the pandemic. But we also urgently need more research and regulation on mask production, so we can reduce any risks to the environment and human health." Dr Sarper Sarp

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Outlined in a recent paper, the tests carried out by the research team used a variety of masks — from standard plain face masks to novelty and festive masks for children with many currently being sold in retail outlets.

The rise in single-use masks, and the associated waste, due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been documented as a new cause of pollution. 

The study aimed to explore this direct link — with investigations to identify the level of toxic substances present.

The findings reveal significant levels of pollutants in all the masks tested — with micro/nanoparticles and heavy metals released into the water during all tests. 

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Researchers conclude this will have a substantial environmental impact and, in addition, raise the question of the potential damage to public health — warning that repeated exposure could be hazardous as the substances found have known links to cell death, genotoxicity and cancer formation.

"The production of disposable plastic face masks (DPFs) in China alone has reached approximately 200 million a day, in a global effort to tackle the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify." Dr Sarper Sarp

Beautiful young woman wearing surgical mask during covid-19 pandemic lockdown
Beautiful young woman wearing surgical mask during covid-19 pandemic lockdown

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. 

It is, therefore, imperative that stricter regulations need to be enforced during manufacturing and disposal/recycling of face masks to minimise the environmental impact.

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There is also a need to understand the impact of such particle leaching on public health. 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.

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.

(With inputs from ANI)

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