This post is NOT a pro or anti-mask rant, everyone made their decisions long ago about the efficacy of masks. This is hopefully an eye-opening look at the dark side of disposable masks. After reading this post, I hope you will strive to make healthier choices about the masks you decide to wear. Better for you and better for the environment. Because disposable masks truly are doing more harm than good.
More Harm for You
Unlike medical PPE, regulations do not exist for face masks designed for use by the general public, and in fact, most fail to meet the same standards as medical-grade PPE. That disposable mask you ordered off of Amazon or bought at your local drugstore may look like a surgical mask, but unless that label states “Medical Grade PPE”, it is not.
Made by the process of heat blowing plastic fibers to create a cloth-like web, these non-surgical grade masks often contain a variety of heavily restricted compounds for both health and environmental reasons.
- Aniline: Is a known carcinogen. It is heavier than air which allows it to accumulate inside the mask during exhalation. It has a fishy odor, which may help you know if it is in your mask. (1)
- Artificial Fragrance: Used to cover up the chemical and plastic smell of the mask. Synthetic fragrances are mostly petrochemicals capable of causing cancer, congenital disabilities, and nervous system disorders. The EPA’s waste list includes many of these chemicals. (2)
- Carbon Dioxide: Several studies have shown that within a short amount of time, you will be breathing in increased concentrations of carbon dioxide as your exhalations get trapped in the mask. Breathing high concentrations of carbon dioxide can cause mild to severe hypoxia depending on how long you wear the mask and how heavy you are breathing. Remember the high school track star that passed out at the finish line because she had to wear a mask while running?
- Fluorocarbons: These chemicals are used as a fluid repellent. They are toxic to human health, and bills have been brought to congress for them to be banned for non-essential use, as continuously breathing them in is very dangerous. Fluorocarbons are the group of chemicals that the movie “Dark Waters” revolves around. The film exposed when DuPont polluted an entire town’s water supply, resulting in human and livestock deaths.
- Formaldehyde: A known carcinogen that causes burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat. Think back to high school chemistry. Do you remember all those warnings whenever you worked with it? It’s what preserved all those things in jars that the teachers kept everywhere.
- Graphene: This substance is highly abrasive and durable. Gases cannot penetrate it, which sounds great for protection from Covid, but it also means your exhalation cannot penetrate it either. Our bodies use our exhalation to rid us of carbon dioxide and other toxins. When they cannot pass through the mask, we re-inhale them increasing their concentration level and decreasing the oxygen level in our bodies. Graphene has been found frequently in blue disposable face masks. Health Canada issued a warning about graphene stating it is “an asbestos-like substance associated with early pulmonary toxicity” due to its abrasive nature. (3)
- Titanium Dioxide: This chemical is used to whiten face masks. When inhaled, it damages the respiratory tract and can lead to pneumonia.
By using a disposable mask, you are essentially breathing in a chemical cocktail that has never been tested for either toxicity or any long-term effects on health. And as described above, the plastic fibers used to create the mask frequently wiggle loose with normal usage and can become lodged in the nasal cavity and lungs, causing irritation and infection. (4)
More Harm for the Environment
Aside from the fact that breathing in the chemicals in disposable masks is potentially very harmful, what happens when these masks break down in the environment? These chemicals will seep into the soil and groundwater. The plastic and metal from the nose bridges will not break down as readily, affecting fish and wildlife. The strings and elastic in the maks can easily entangle the limbs of animals or be ingested and cause internal damage to wildlife.
A team from MIT studying the environmental impact of disposable masks estimates that in the U.S., in the first six months of the pandemic and only looking at official health care waste, mask waste of over 185 million pounds was generated. That is the equivalent of 252 Boeing 747 airplanes! And that is just in the first six months of the pandemic and doesn’t include every other person outside of health care that used a disposable mask. At this writing, we are now 20 months into the pandemic… think about the amount of waste we have produced! (5)
It is estimated that worldwide, 3 million masks are used a minute. Most are disposable masks made from those plastic microfibers. These microfibers cannot be easily biodegraded and commonly fracture into smaller micro and nano plastics with far-reaching implications for ecosystems. (6) Disposable masks cannot be recycled like a plastic water bottle, making them likely to be discarded as solid waste. Like other wastes, things happen, and they don’t always stay in the trash bags on their way to the dump. They end up on the side of the road, in streams, fields, and oceans. I took this picture on my morning walk in my neighborhood. These things are everywhere!
Using historical data, the UN estimates that 75% of the used masks will end up in landfills or floating in the ocean, and that is when the immediate effects become apparent. Some ocean life cannot tell the difference between plastic items and their prey, subsequently choking on the pieces of litter. If they do not choke, they will become malnourished as their stomachs fill with materials that provide no nutrients. Smaller animals and birds frequently become entangled in the strings and loops. (7)
As I said in the beginning, if you believe masks are important to wear, then please take some time to think about and maybe do your own research on what kind of materials you want in your mask.