Kuala Lumpur (AFP)
The masks that helped save lives during the coronavirus pandemic are proving a deadly danger to wildlife, with birds and sea creatures being trapped in the staggering number of discarded face coverings littering animal habitats.
Single-use surgical masks have been found strewn on sidewalks, waterways and beaches around the world since countries began mandating their use in public places to slow the spread of the pandemic.
Worn once, thin protective materials can take hundreds of years to decompose.
“Face masks aren’t going away anytime soon – but when we throw them away, these items can harm the environment and the animals that share our planet,” Ashley Fruno of animal rights group PETA told AFP.
Macaques have been seen chewing on the straps of old masks thrown aside in the hills outside the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur – a potential choking hazard for the little monkeys.
And in an incident that made headlines in Britain, a seagull was rescued by the RSPCA in the town of Chelmsford after its legs became tangled in the straps of a disposable mask for a week.
The animal welfare charity was alerted after the bird was spotted, motionless but still alive, and they took it to a wildlife hospital for treatment before it was released.
“It’s clear the mask had been there for some time and the elastic straps had tightened around his legs as his joints were swollen and painful,” RSPCA Inspector Adam Jones said.
– Cut mask straps –
The biggest impact may be in the water, with green groups alarmed by the flood of used masks, latex gloves and other protective gear making their way into already contaminated seas and rivers.
More than 1.5 billion masks entered the world’s oceans last year, or about 6,200 more tonnes of marine plastic pollution, according to environmental group OceansAsia.
There are already signs that the masks are increasing threats to marine life.
Conservationists in Brazil found one in a penguin’s stomach after its body washed up on a beach, while a dead pufferfish was discovered caught in another off Miami. .
French campaigners in Operation Clean Sea found a dead crab trapped in a mask in a saltwater lagoon near the Mediterranean in September.
Masks and gloves are “particularly problematic” for sea creatures, says George Leonard, chief scientist at the US NGO Ocean Conservancy.
“When these plastics break down in the environment, they form smaller and smaller particles,” he told AFP.
These particles then enter the food chain and impact entire ecosystems, he added.
There has been a move towards greater use of reusable sheet masks as the pandemic has grown, but many are still opting for the lighter, single-use varieties.
Campaigners urged people to store them properly and cut the straps to reduce the risk of the animals being trapped.
OceansAsia also called on governments to increase fines for litter and encourage the use of washable masks.
© 2021 AFP