Face mask is a vital tool for humans to reduce the spread of the coronavirus disease. However, this same tool that protects the lives of humans also endangers the lives of animals.

Governments around the world recommended the use of face masks to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, however, usage of the disposable masks have been described as a “menace” because of the plastic it contains that poses a threat to animals and the environment.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimated that the global sales of disposable face masks this year alone is worth 166 billion US dollars from 800 million dollars in 2019.

Disposable face masks are made from layers of plastic, and since a great number of these are being disposed around the world, they surely pose a great threat to wildlife and habitata.

A study made by researchers from the University College, London calculated that if one person wore a disposable mask every day for a year, it is already about 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste. Imagine billion of peoople in a year.

“Soon there may be more masks than jellyfish [in the Mediterranean],” Laurent Lombard, a diver and founder of the nonprofit Operation Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) told CNN.

“Estimates suggest that more than 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and over a million seabirds are killed by marine plastic annually,” Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of Research at OceansAsia, told Energy Live News. “Marine plastic absorbs toxins, which results in it poisoning animals that accidentally ingest it.”

“A mask that is ingested by a local turtle, pink dolphin or finless porpoise, for example, could easily become stuck in the digestive system of this animal, thereby killing it,” he added.

Companion animals are not safe from face masks, too. Betsky Kehoe, human companion to two-year-old Labrador Retriever named King, had a scare in mid-October.

King began vomiting, so Kehoe brought him to the veterinarian. They did not see anything alarming in King’s blood tests and X-ray, so they went home. But two weeks later, King continues to vomit and later on, refused to eat his favorite meal.

King was referred to Henry & Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals, and new x-rays revealed two bright lines, which suggested were thin pieces of metal, where his stomach met his small intestine.

“We thought these might be from the fitted nosepiece of a face mask,” veterinarian Catherin Stecyk, told Tufts Now.

“We took King to emergency surgery, where I felt two wads of material,” said Stecyk. “One was stuck in the stomach and extending into the beginning of the small intestine, causing it to bunch up, and the other one was a bit farther down the intestine. The intestine was inflamed and brusied, but not yet traumatized to the point of perforation, which was really lucky.”

King has now fully recovered, and Kehoe is sharing their story in the hopes that other pet parents could take such as these things seriously.

“Some dog owners may be used to their pet being OK after eating a greasy paper towel or pooping out a sock. However, they need to know that cloth masks and the medical-grade paper masks don’t dissolve that quickly, and the ties or ear loops can lead to a dangerous linear obstruction,” said veterinarian Elizabeth Rozanski.

Keeping animals safe

1. Keep your masks out of reach. Store clean masks somewhere safe from animals and put used masks directly in the laundry or trash.

2. Discard masks properly. Make sure not to throw your masks on the side of the road or on the ocean, where animals could easily be entangled on it, or eat it. Throw it in the garbage bin, and if you have scissors with you, cut the strings used on the ear loops.

3. Contact veterinarians or rescue groups. If you suspect your animal companion to have eaten a mask, or see wildlife entangled in a mask, contact an animal rescue group or veterinarian immediately. As veterinarian Rozanski said, catching what’s wrong sooner than later is always better.

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