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Why is everyone wearing Face Masks?

The Coronavirus Pandemic has put the demand for medical supplies, such as surgical masks and N95 respirators into full speed, while putting tremendous pressure on their supply. Countries have put in place nation-wide lockdowns to stop the spread of the coronavirus and have issued safety guidelines such as the use of surgical masks or N95 respirators while stepping out. A couple of months ago when the fears of a Coronavirus outbreak were not so prevalent, these masks classified as medical supplies were a common sight in hospitals only. But then as the epidemic went global and became a pandemic, thanks to travellers masking symptoms and hiding travel history, the fears of coronavirus became widespread and general public started wearing disposable face masks.

Surgical Mask and N95 Respirator. Image Credits: CDC.GOV

Before the lockdowns were initiated people conscious about their wellbeing and health started wearing masks regularly in public places. That’s how these face masks made their journey into the hands, or in literal sense, on the faces of people. They transitioned from just being a medical supply to being a vital part of the society. Medical personnel wear these on an everyday basis for protection against diseases and to stop their spread while treating patients and, with an infectious illness gone rogue they needed it more than ever. Supplies which could not have been accelerated so fast while its demand skyrocketed almost instantly with everyone wanting and needing a mask, scarcity emerged. These face masks are not really designed for re-use and therefore healthcare workers need a lot of them. Ideally they should be discarded after every patient encounter or once they get wet,  or get dirty or contaminated with blood, nasal or respiratory secretions or other bodily fluids or once they get damaged, because then they no longer form an effective seal of the face. With an ever increasing need, considering how the number of people infected worldwide with the virus have crossed way beyond 1 million, and how healthcare workers go through multiple masks during one shift, hospitals and clinics began struggling with the shortage of adequate protective gear, at the same time seeing an ever-increasing inflow of infected people.

Face Mask
Inner part of the face mask; Image Credits:

What’s inside these face masks?

Surgical Masks are made from plastics like polypropylene to filter and protect. Other materials such as polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, polyester etc are also suitable for making surgical face masks, depending on the thickness of the fibre and factors affecting the efficiency of filtration. N95 respirators are also made from non-woven plastics fabric like polypropylene. Some of them feature exhalation valves to help the wearer breathe more easily.

A shopper is seen wearing a face mask while browsing; Image Credits:

Should you be wearing masks? Do they provide protection?

If you ask experts in this matter they will all give you different answers. It is a very debatable question whether to wear masks or just let them be for the infected and the ones curing them. We all know that masks are needed for healthcare workers to keep them safe from diseases but many Governments have asked the people to wear a mask while stepping out. Many claim that mask wearers lull themselves into a “false sense of security” feeling that they’ve avoided all risk of catching the virus.

It is clear that the virus can spread from asymptotic people to healthy people. And limiting the usage of masks to only the people diagnosed with Covid-19 puts everyone else at risk.

Masks may not be the surefire way of protecting us, but they add a somewhat layer of protection. Cloth masks work but don’t protect as efficiently like non-woven fabrics because they can get damp and types of cloth vary in their permeability.

In this video made by German physicists, using a mirror and a type of photography technique which allows you to see the flow of air, shows how the air particles travel when someone breathes, coughs in the open air, into their hand, into their dust mask and when they cough into their surgical mask.

It isn’t showing anything which is purely a scientific study, it only shows what face masks do well: they limit the number of respiratory particles and also limit how far they can travel in the air.


Image of the famous Mona Lisa wearing a surgical face mask. Image Credits:

Let’s be clear here, masks are by no means the clear tool for preventing the spread of the Coronavirus. In a world without a vaccine for treating Covid-19 or for preventing its spread, a mask just acts as a mere veil of protection against it.

A mask is a constant reminder slapped across our noses and mouths to make us not forget that we are facing a pandemic and it is not the time for life to go on normally. With whole states and nations under lockdown, facing immense pressure handling the sick and battling the ever-mutating disease, a mask acts as a barrier, maybe not the most effective one, but it sure does the job of restraining some of the bodily fluids expelled by an infected person while coughing or sneezing in public.

There have been so many attempts made by Governments and healthcare bodies to make the public aware about the severity of the situation, however, whether or not you’ve been advised to wear face masks depends on where you are from.

The world has had pandemics in the past but not of such magnitude and certainly not with this level of globalisation and density of population. The SARS-CoV-2 most likely began in one of the wet markets of Wuhan, China where it jumped from a wild animal species to humans, though there has been a lot of debate about its animal origins and how it journeyed from animals to humans and who Patient Zero was.

From covering our faces to becoming the new face of Marine Water Pollution. Would our protective gear soon be polluting oceans everywhere?

As the Coronavirus outbreak began in Asia in late 2019, countries with prior experience of handling the SARS outbreak sprung into action and the citizens started to don face masks in public. Face masks aren’t a new thing for Southeast Asian countries, Japan amongst others nations have a culture of face masks now. The Historical, Cultural and Societal reasons for the popularity of face masks in Southeast Asia are deep-rooted. The people of these countries had no problem making such a small adjustment to their daily lives.

But after all, these face masks are single-use, but are they disposable in nature?

Image shows a discarded face mask on the beach along with other debris.
Discarded Face Mask lying on the beach; Credits:

We all know they are made out of plastic and their re-usability is a very tricky and sensitive issue. Masks, as stated earlier, were usually reserved for medical staff and industrial use, they weren’t a common sight in the general public unless someone was sick or had a habit of wearing them. But with this outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, the demand for face masks has jumped through the roof, while after being used they are thrown in the trash just like regular waste.

Hospitals on a regular basis go through a lot of medical supplies and they have special systems in place to handle the waste. Hospitals use incinerators to get rid of the medical waste such as gloves, used syringes, masks etc. Medical waste has to be treated in a certain way, to stop other people from getting in contact with it

Oceans Asia, a Hong Kong based environmental NGO, found a lot of marine debris on the Soko Islands, a remote cluster of islands. On their visit at the end of February, they found that discarded face masks were a part of the debris washed ashore. The countless face masks which are used and then discarded found their way to the oceans. They found almost 70 masks on the 100 metre stretch of beach. Masks which are made using polypropylene, which does not breakdown fast and can also become coated with toxins.

Discarded single-use face masks collected on the beach; Image Credits: Oceans Asia

These face masks if left like marine debris can be mistaken as food and be consumed by marine animals like Turtles, Dolphins, Porpoises etc., depending on the waters they are found in. Once ingested, these masks can either poison them or get stuck in their digestive tracks and ultimately kill them. Not just this, these masks can also trap small marine creatures and for some marine animals such an entanglement accident can be fatal. Environmentalists and Organisations are concerned about these masks being disposed off like general waste and finding their way to the oceans.

Proper disposal of face masks is very important. These cannot be treated like general waste, if that happens they would end up in landfills or find their way to the oceans just like it happened in Hong Kong on the remote Soko Islands. Our oceans are already full of a lot of trash and debris which the fish and other marine creatures come in contact with or consume. They pose a great harm and this inflow of masks is only adding to the whole single-use plastic problem of our oceans and seas. First it was plastic straws and now discarded face masks have become the new face of the Marine Water Pollution.

A discarded face mask on the beach. Image Credits: Oceans Asia

We need to have a proper waste management system in place which deals with such single use waste in a pandemic. This finding is just a little glimpse of the monumental amount of waste which we will have to deal with in the coming months.  Governments and organisations need to come up with an effective waste management system to battle the waste generated during this Coronavirus Pandemic and people also need to be wary of their actions and learn how to minimise and handle the waste they generate knowingly and unknowingly.

Debris floating at the surface of the ocean. Image Credits: Oceans Asia

Our pristine oceans have already lost a lot of life and beauty, let us not make the home of our marine life into the world’s largest dumpster.


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