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Discarded surgical masks are a ticking time bomb for ecosystems: Study

Researchers from City University of Hong Kong (CityU) have found that the inappropriate disposal of surgical masks can cause serious microplastic pollution, equivalent to polluting more than 54,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools of seawater annually.

The masks, which have been widely used to help protect against the spread of coronavirus during the pandemic, could potentially affect the growth and reproduction of marine organisms and ecosystems if left inappropriately disposed of.

The release of microplastics from polypropylene surgical masks in seawater

The research team was led by Dr. Henry He Yuhe, assistant professor in CityU’s School of Energy and Environment (SEE) and a member of the State Key Laboratory of Marine Pollution (SKLMP). Dr. He Yuhe and his team collected discarded surgical masks from a beach in Hong Kong to investigate the release of microplastics from polypropylene surgical masks in seawater.

The findings were published in the academic journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, titled Release of Microplastics from Discarded Surgical Masks and Their Adverse Impacts on the Marine Copepod Tigriopus japonicus.

Inappropriate disposal of masks a new environmental challenge

The study set out: ‘It is estimated that the global demand for face masks reached 129 billion per month by 2020. However, due to the lack of proper collection, disposal, and management policy, the increased consumption and inappropriate disposal of masks could lead to a massive release of hazardous materials into the coastal environment by direct discarding, drainage, river flows, or surface runoff, causing a new environmental challenge. 

It is estimated that a total of 1.56 billion masks were released into the oceans in 2020.’

The study found that microplastics (MPs) released from surgical masks (SMs) ‘can also act as a vector of other pollutants (e.g., plasticisers) in the marine environment and might cause a cumulative effect on marine organisms. .. The results of this study indicate an urgent need to minimise the risk of this emerging threat through better environmental management, policy, and law enforcement for ensuring proper disposal of SMs worldwide.’

“This amount of microplastics can seriously pollute 137 million cubic meters of seawater, which is equivalent to filling up more than 54,800 Olympic swimming pools,” Dr. He Yuhe said.

 “Polypropylene (PP) is the main material widely used in surgical masks,” he explains. “It is a kind of commodity plastic that can break down under the effects of heat, wind, ultraviolet radiation, and ocean currents, eventually forming microplastics.

“I believe this problem will continue for many years in the post-pandemic era.”

.Last month, according to a new report, the amount of plastic could ‘far exceed’ the weight of fish by 2050.
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