Single-use masks could be a coronavirus hazard if we don’t dispose of them properly.
Many people have already been wearing masks for some time in a bid to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. Evidence has shown masks likely do reduce the spread of COVID-19, so wearing them is a good and ethical thing to do, but one conversation we’re not having enough is around how to safely dispose of single-use masks. Disposing of used masks or gloves incorrectly could risk spreading the infection they’re designed to protect against.
While reusable cloth masks are an option if you’ve been able to buy one or even make one yourself, disposable, single-use surgical masks appear to be a popular choice. They provide protection and they’re cheap and convenient. It’s estimated the global use and disposal of masks and gloves will amount to 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves for every month of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effect on the environment is an important but separate issue to the health risks we’re discussing here.
Alarmingly, from what we’ve observed, people are discarding masks in communal trash bins and even leaving them in empty shopping carts. Incorrectly disposing of masks could create a risk of infection for others. People should know better than to leave used masks lying around, but they can’t be expected not to discard them in public bins when there’s no other option, and when they’re not given any advice on how to dispose of them properly. While there are clear guidelines on the disposal and separation of medical waste within healthcare settings, guidelines for disposal of surgical masks in public settings are unclear.
The Australian government simply advises they be disposed of “responsibly in the trash bin”, meaning they will be mixed with ordinary waste. This is in contrast to personal protective equipment (PPE) used in health-care settings, which is disposed of separately to regular waste, transported to sealed landfill, and in some cases incinerated.
We don’t yet know a whole lot about the survival of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, on textile materials. One study published in the medical journal The Lancet found no infectious SARS-CoV-2 could be detected on textile materials after 48 hours. A review study which looked at the survival of a range of pathogens on textiles found viruses could survive longer than 48 hours, though not as long as bacteria. Although we need more research on this topic, it seems there is potential for cross-contamination, and therefore possibly COVID-19 infection, from disposed masks. In addition, if the discarded mask is carrying infectious particles, it may be possible for these to cross-contaminate the surfaces they come into contact with, such as shopping carts. And we know SARS-CoV-2 survives more readily on hard surfaces than porous ones, so this is a worry.
The safest thing to do is to put used masks and gloves into a plastic bag when you take them off, and seal it. Then, when you’re back at home, throw the bag away into a closed bin.
Source: The Conversation, www.theconversation.com