Toxins found in disposable plastic face masks may harm humans and the environment

SWANSEA, United Kingdom — Since the pandemic, the demand for disposable plastic face masks (DPFs) has soared. In 2020, production facilities, mainly in China, produced over 52 billion masks – some up to 450 million per day. Although they are “single-use” items, estimates show it could take up to 450 years for face masks to degrade. Making matters worse, a recent study finds these masks may be spreading harmful toxins into the environment.

Researchers at Swansea University found significant amounts of toxins (lead, copper, and antimony) coming out of several masks after exposure to water. Experts are now posing the question of whether plastic masks are safe enough for people to use every day. Moreover, considering the number of masks that do not make it to the trash bin, these results are alarming.

“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,” says lead researcher Dr. Sarper Sarp of Swansea’s College of Engineering in a university release.

Cancer-causing chemicals in face masks?

To ensure conclusive testing, a team of scientists analyzed seven different brands of disposable face masks. They soaked all the masks in water to model the actual environmental circumstances for those that end up as trash or litter. Results revealed traces of heavy metals like lead and other toxins, such as carcinogenic chemicals in the water.

“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,” Dr. Sarp continues.

“It is, therefore, imperative that stricter regulations need to be enforced during manufacturing and disposal/recycling of DPFs to minimize the environmental impact. There is also a need to understand the impact of such particle leaching on public health,” the study author concludes. “Therefore, 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 health care professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day.”

This study is published in the journal Water Research.