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Covid-19 PPE Waste Posed "Lethal Threat to Nature" - New Study

7th August 2022
Entanglement is a significant threat to the health of birds, especially those which spend a lot of time at sea
Entanglement is a significant threat to the health of birds, especially those which spend a lot of time at sea Credit: Trish Loli Brewster

Covid-19 personal protective equipment has posed a “lethal threat to nature”, a new study by scientists involving Britain’s Natural History Museum (NHM) has found.

Billions of face masks and gloves produced for protection from the virus are making plastic pollution “an even greater issue”, the study has said.

While no longer as “prevalent” as they once were, the disposable masks and gloves could stay in the environment for “tens if not hundreds of years”, it warns.

Entanglements were one of the most prevalent threats, with some animals being killed after becoming caught in the plastic debris, the study drawing on community science observations from around the world has noted.

The paper’s co-author, NHM principal curator and curator in charge of birds at the museum Dr Alex Bond, says that “we really don't know how big a problem pandemic waste could be”.

“As many areas of the world had restrictions on non-essential movement, we will never be able to know the true extent of the issue, but this study gives us a snapshot into the sheer diversity of species that were affected,” he says.

The study captures only 114 observations from around the world, representing “just a fraction of the much larger impacts of COVID-19 waste on wildlife”.

At the pandemic’s height, estimated global demand was for over 129 billion disposable masks per month.

“We filter out most litter in our environment, as it represents examples such as crisp packets or cigarette butts that we've seen for years or decades,” Dr Bond explains.

“When PPE [personal protective equipment] flooded our waste management systems in the early days of the pandemic, it was a lot more obvious because it was new,” he says.

“Now we don't even flinch when we see a blue face mask on the ground. It's rapidly become part of our everyday experience of waste in our environment,” he says.

Published in Marine Wildlife
Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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Marine Wildlife Around Ireland One of the greatest memories of any day spent boating around the Irish coast is an encounter with marine wildlife.  It's a thrill for young and old to witness seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales right there in their own habitat. As boaters fortunate enough to have experienced it will testify even spotting a distant dorsal fin can be the highlight of any day afloat.  Was that a porpoise? Was it a whale? No matter how brief the glimpse it's a privilege to share the seas with Irish marine wildlife.

Thanks to the location of our beautiful little island, perched in the North Atlantic Ocean there appears to be no shortage of marine life to observe.

From whales to dolphins, seals, sharks and other ocean animals this page documents the most interesting accounts of marine wildlife around our shores. We're keen to receive your observations, your photos, links and youtube clips.

Boaters have a unique perspective and all those who go afloat, from inshore kayaking to offshore yacht racing that what they encounter can be of real value to specialist organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) who compile a list of sightings and strandings. The IWDG knowledge base has increased over the past 21 years thanks in part at least to the observations of sailors, anglers, kayakers and boaters.

Thanks to the IWDG work we now know we share the seas with dozens of species who also call Ireland home. Here's the current list: Atlantic white-sided dolphin, beluga whale, blue whale, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Cuvier's beaked whale, false killer whale, fin whale, Gervais' beaked whale, harbour porpoise, humpback whale, killer whale, minke whale, northern bottlenose whale, northern right whale, pilot whale, pygmy sperm whale, Risso's dolphin, sei whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, sperm whale, striped dolphin, True's beaked whale and white-beaked dolphin.

But as impressive as the species list is the IWDG believe there are still gaps in our knowledge. Next time you are out on the ocean waves keep a sharp look out!

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