The single-use face masks and disposable latex gloves protecting people from the Wuhan coronavirus are also harming animals, according to a recent report by researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands.
The report, published in Animal Biology, provides an overview of cases of entanglement and ingestion of face masks, latex gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) by terrestrial and aquatic animals.
In particular, the researchers collated dozens of reports of birds and sea creatures ingesting bits of face masks and gloves or even becoming entangled or trapped in such litter. There were even reports of pet animals, such as dogs, swallowing discarded face masks.
Face masks, gloves are killing animals, harming ecosystems
Millions of people around the world have been using single-use face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic in the hopes of protecting themselves from the virus. Masks even became a legal requirement in public spaces in several countries. Some people also use gloves to avoid touching potentially contaminated surfaces.
Unfortunately, the increased use of such PPE has resulted in a new wave of plastic litter, one that poses a very serious threat to terrestrial and aquatic animals. In fact, the Dutch researchers began their research after they found a perch caught in a latex glove while cleaning a canal. Further investigation revealed that the country’s historic canals were chock-full of discarded face masks, worrying researchers.
To better understand the scale of the problem, the group scoured news sites, local newspapers and even posts on social media by litter collectors, birdwatchers, veterinarians and wildlife rescue centers. They found scores of incidents of animals getting entangled in or accidentally swallowing masks and gloves.
The earliest known victim of discarded single-use PPE was an American robin that was caught in a soiled mask in Canada last April. The bird had gotten entangled in the rubber ear loops of the mask.
In the Netherlands, a serotine bat was found entangled in two masks. Meanwhile, a hedgehog in the United Kingdom also found itself entangled in a latex glove, while a monkey in Malaysia attempted to eat a soiled mask.
Other incidents included in the report were of a checkered pufferfish that was found dead after getting caught in a mask near Miami Beach in the United States and of a shore crab in France that was found in a similar manner. There were also a handful of reports of dogs swallowing discarded face masks.
The researchers also came upon a report of a dead penguin that had bits of plastic inside its stomach, possibly due to ingesting broken-down face masks. They also found that some birds even built their nests out of discarded masks and latex gloves, as well as plastic packaging of paper towels.
Liselotte Rambonnet, one of the biologists who worked on the report, said animals can become weakened due to being entangled in such plastic litter. They may also eventually starve to death from swallowing plastic debris because the plastic keeps them full. Plastic debris can also leak chemicals into their bodies.
But the recently published report is only the beginning. Rambonnet and her colleagues said more information is needed in order to understand the extent of the problem. They launched a website called CovidLitter so that people from all over the world can submit their own reports of wildlife getting trapped or ingesting single-use PPE.
The researchers are also encouraging people to use reusable face masks if possible and properly discard single-use ones to minimize their impact on wildlife. (Related: Disposable face masks poised to become the next plastic crisis.)
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