Swansea University scientists have observed leaching of dangerous chemical pollutants from disposable plastic face masks (DPFs)when submerged in water. The research reveals high levels of pollutants, including lead, antimony, and copper, within the silicon-based and plastic fibres of common disposable face masks.
Since the outbreak of CoVID-19 use of single use masks along with their associated wastes have risen exponentially as use of mask is the only effective and available resort for everyone, however their usage and discarding have left a deep impact on the environment, and have 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, and focuses on the emission of pollutants from 7 DPF brands that were submerged in water to simulate environmental conditions if these DPFs were littered.
The DPF leachates in water were filtered by inorganic membranes, and both particle-deposited organic membranes and the filtrates were characterized using techniques such as FTIR, SEM-EDX, Light Microscopy, ICP-MS and LC-MS. Micro and nano scale polymeric fibres, particles, siliceous fragments and leachable inorganic and organic chemicals were observed from all of the tested DPFs. Traces concerning heavy metals (i.e. lead up to 6.79 µg/L) were detected in association with silicon containing fragments. ICP-MS also confirmed the presence of other leachable metals like cadmium (up to 1.92 µg/L), antimony (up to 393 µg/L) and copper (up to 4.17 µg/L). LC-MS analysis identified polar leachable organic species related to plastic additives and contaminants; polyamide-66 monomer and oligomers (nylon-66 synthesis), surfactant molecules, dye-like molecules and polyethylene glycol were all tentatively identified in the leachate.
The findings reveal significant levels of pollutants in all the masks tested – with micro/nano particles and heavy metals released into the water during all tests. 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.
Project lead Dr Sarper Sarp of Swansea University College of Engineering said: “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 continues: “ improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify. 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. Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show 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”.
The study also warrants 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 healthcare professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working.
The group have published their findings in the journal of water research.
P.S: Content edited for style and length
G.L. Sullivan, J. Delgado-Gallardo, T.M. Watson, S. Sarp. An investigation into the leaching of micro and nano particles and chemical pollutants from disposable face masks - linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Water Research, 2021; 196: 117033 DOI: 10.1016/j.watres.2021.117033
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