Members of the public are being encouraged to share any sightings of animals caught in discarded personal protective equipment (PPE) after a study revealed the waste is killing wildlife across the globe.
As the use of protective masks and latex gloves increased following the coronavirus outbreak last year, so too did the amount of litter in the environment. The improper disposal of the equipment meant that it ended up clogging streets, waterways and green spaces, posing a risk to animals who can ingest or become entangled in the products.
Scientists at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden conducted a study into the impacts of PPE waste and found that birds, fish and other wildlife have started building their homes using the discarded materials, as well as dying from encounters with it.
The study came after scientists in the Dutch city of Leiden found a fish trapped in a medical latex glove during a canal cleanup last summer, and in the following months the biologists discovered hundreds of discarded face masks in the canals.
Speaking to CNN about the findings, Auke-Florian Hiemstra, a biologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and co-author of the report, said: ‘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 continued: ‘I think it’s ironic that the materials that protect us are so harmful to the animals around us.’
Using information gathered from social media, local newspapers and international news sites, the researchers have so far recorded more than 50 incidences globally where wildlife was harmed, including dogs, monkeys, hedgehogs and penguins who had ingested or entangled themselves in PPE.
The study, published last week in the journal Animal Biology, added that birds have been creating nests using face masks, gloves and tissue paper.
The researchers believe the actual number of cases is much higher than the figures they have so far recorded, and that the entire animal kingdom is likely to suffer from coronavirus-related litter.
Biologist and study co-author Liselotte Rambonnet has urged members of the public to use reusable face masks in an effort to reduce waste, explaining: ‘All the interactions we found were with single-use face masks because they are inexpensive and can be lost more easily.’
Though making an effort to reduce litter is always a positive, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic may have already had an unchangeable impact. According to a report by OceansAsia, cited by CNN, an estimated 1.56 billion face masks entered the ocean in 2020, meaning there will be face masks floating in the ocean for ‘hundreds of years’, Hiemstra said.
The biologist added: ‘I’m afraid it will not stop very soon, and actually the problem will only get worse over time, sadly.’
In an bid to expand their research, the scientists behind the study have set up a database for members of the public to report sightings of animals impacted by PPE litter.
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