Health experts around the world endorsed the use of well-made reusable masks or gloves that are properly sanitised to protect the environment from pollution and our communities from the COVID-19 pandemic on 18 July. As countries continue to face shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), experts encourage the public to practice hygiene practices like handwashing and wearing reusable masks, while leaving medical-grade and single-use PPE for healthcare and essential workers. John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, says according to a study in environmental science and technology, the world is using an estimated 129 billion disposable masks and 65 billion disposable gloves each month during the pandemic. He says the study finds not only has this led to widespread environmental contamination, it poses a significant public health risk as this waste serves as a vector for the virus.
“We cannot protect human health without a healthy environment and the hundreds of billions of throwaway plastic masks and gloves we are using come at an enormous cost, particularly for communities of colour near landfills and incinerators, where it is dumped or burned. We need to protect ourselves from COVID today in ways that will not endanger us to other deadly diseases in the future,” says Hocevar.
Dr. Jodi Sherman, associate professor of anesthesiology and epidemiology, and director of the program on healthcare environmental sustainability at Yale University in the United States of America, says the public should be using reusable face masks and performing routine laundering at home. She says it is unnecessary for personal safety and harmful to planetary health to use disposable gloves for shopping as hand sanitiser or soap and water are both safe and effective.
The United Nations has raised the possibility of additional locally manufactured incinerators to deal with the excess waste from PPE which would impact air quality for surrounding communities. Communities of colour are disproportionately impacted by pollution which has exacerbated their already higher rates of COVID-19 illness and death. Dr. Saulo Delfino Barboza, associate professor of the health and education program at University of Ribeirao Preto in Brazil, says our health depends on the health of our planet’s natural resources. He says single-use plastic materials are contaminating our air, water, and soil and therefore harming our health, and breaking free from single-use plastics is now a matter of public health. Dr. Geminn Louis C. Apostol, professor and lead environmental health specialist of the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, says while ensuring adequate access to PPE is paramount, the pandemic has exposed how the medical and nonmedical community has an unnecessary and dangerous reliance on disposable, single-use materials. He says inequitable access to PPE and information about how to stay safe has contributed to the disproportionate rates of infection in poor and minority communities. “If medical masks are prioritised for healthcare workers, the public can use cloth masks as a safe, cost-effective alternative. Widespread use of single-use PPE has resulted in enormous quantities entering waste management streams, contaminating public spaces and natural environments as well as creating additional threats to public health and safety,” says the professor.