Discarded Covid-19 Masks and Plastic Gloves Are Killing Wildlife

Biologists are finding single-use items are entrapping and entangling animals all over the globe

An image of a person holding an American Robin in their hands. The bird has a mask wrapped around its wing.
Twenty-eight incidents where wildlife was harmed by PPE were recorded and the first documented case included an American Robin found wrapped up in a mask in Canada, in April 2020. SANDRA DENISUK, A.-F. HIEMSTRA ET AL/ANIMAL BIOLOGY 2021

When the Covid-19 pandemic began to unfold and mask mandates were put in place, some researchers predicted an "environmental disaster" that could "last generations." Improperly discarded single-use personal protective equipment (PPE), such as disposable masks and latex gloves, could harm wildlife and exacerbate plastic pollution, Marie Fazio reported for the New York Times last summer.

Now, researchers have published a new report in the journal Animal Biology that offers a first look into how animals are handling the aftermath of PPE litter, reports Anne Pinto-Rodrigues for Science News.

In their paper, the scientists described various instances during which animals died after ingesting or becoming entangled in PPE that was not disposed of properly. For example, a penguin in Brazil swallowed a mask while hedgehogs and foxes in the United Kingdom got tangled in masks as well, reports Damian Carrington for the Guardian. In August 2020, volunteers cleaning up canals in Leiden, Netherlands, came upon a small European perch (Perca fluviatilis) wedged inside of the thumb of a disposable latex glove, reports Jessica Leigh Hester for Atlas Obscura.

After hearing about the entrapped perch, biologists Liselotte Rambonnet and Auke-Florian Hiemstra, both based at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center at Leiden University, decided to take a closer look at the impact of Covid-19 litter on animals. They scoured social media sites for posts made by birdwatchers, wildlife rescue centers, volunteers from litter clean-ups, and vets who may have observed animals affected by PPE waste, reports the Guardian.

An image of a discarded latex glove with a European perch entrapped in the thumb
In August 2020 during a plastic clean up of the canals in Leiden, Netherlands, volunteers came upon a small European perch (Perca fluviatilis) wedged inside of the thumb of a disposable latex glove. Auke-Florian Hiemstra

Rambonnet and Hiemstra recorded 28 incidents of harmed wildlife and found these events were likely part of an emerging global pattern, Science News reports. Many of those instances were mask-related, and the earliest victim they found was an American robin in Canada wrapped up in a mask found in April 2020. Pets are also at risk, as the study found several cases of domestic cats and dogs in the United States ingesting face masks, Science News reports.

"As always with these single-use items, you're not really looking after them and they end up in the environment really soon. They start becoming a real problem," Hiemstra told Eoin McSweeney for CNN. "I think it's ironic that the materials that protect us are so harmful to the animals around us."

Before the pandemic began, plastic pollution was already threatening wildlife. Seabirds have been found on beaches with plastic filling up their bellies, and sea turtles have been found entangled in single-use packaging. A report by a Hong Kong marine conservation group OceansAsia found PPE is intensifying plastic pollution. The conservation group estimated that 1.56 billion face masks entered the ocean in 2020, Science News reports. In fall 2020, the Marine Conservation Society found PPE litter on one-third of beaches in the U.K. in their annual clean-up effort, Sandra Laville reported for the Guardian in November 2020.

While the researchers found various instances of animals interacting with PPE, they realize their study only covers a small portion of what is being observed globally. To continue monitoring animals and PPE cases, Hiemstra and Rambonnet launched a website, where anyone can report and submit an observation.

The team suggests using reusable masks, snipping the straps on disposable masks, and cutting up disposable gloves to help curb PPE threats to wildlife.

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