Mask on the ground

A mask on the ground in downtown Morgantown.

Mask pollution, since the start of COVID-19, has been a problem for West Virginia wildlife as the plastic masks being littered across the state and country not only affect the animals and their environment but can also lead to health deficits in humans.

“There's really no excuse to pollute the environment with plastic masks and other plastics,” said Kirsten Stephan, teaching associate professor of forest management in the division of forestry and natural resources at WVU.

Animals may get entangled in or accidentally ingest discarded masks. Veterinarians are seeing dogs especially have eaten masks.

“When these plastics do break down they turn into micro plastics that enter in the food chain,” Stephan said.

These micro plastics, once they have entered the food chain through the consumption by animals or uptake of plants, not only have negative health effects on their digestive systems and overall health, but run the risk of entering our bodies when we consume meat or plants and may cause brain damage because of the BPA (bisphenol A) and heavy metals included in the micro plastics.

The best way to resolve this issue would be to properly dispose of the masks in the garbage.

Unfortunately, these masks are not able to be recycled, and while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend reuse of the plastic masks, Stephan noted that recommendations for the reuse of surgical masks were given early during the pandemic when there were supply shortages.

For reuse, surgical masks that are not torn or visibly soiled should be placed in a clean, breathable container, like a paper bag, for seven days to dry and to allow the virus to die off.

This could also reduce the amount of plastic masks ending up in the environment. Cotton masks are also a good alternative to the plastic ones, as they can be machine washed and reused whenever necessary.

Stephan also said that biodegradable masks would serve as a better alternative for the plastic ones, and her colleague Gloria Oporto, associate professor of wood science and technology at WVU, has been working on developing biodegradable masks made out of wood and copper particles.

The main purpose of these masks as of now is for the benefit of healthcare workers, as these masks are to be antiviral and antimicrobial, which means the masks would protect against viruses such as COVID-19 and prevent people from having to constantly clean surfaces with chemicals.

Oporto is getting results on the filtration of the biofilters and breathability of the mask within the next week, and her team of scientists are hoping to develop the masks at a larger scale for the general public if it turns out to be a success.

Oporto said this would be an ideal alternative to the plastic masks that harm the environment because even if they are not properly disposed, these masks can reduce the amount of harmful plastics in the environment.

With biodegradable masks still in development, the best way to reduce the amount of plastic masks in the environment is a simple one: throw them away in the trash, reuse as much as possible or wear a cotton mask.