While unavailability of Personal Protective Equipment has become a big issue among medical health professionals and essential workers around the world, medical waste disposal has surfaced as a burning issue in amid the coronavirus pandemic.
With maks, gloves and other PPE gear being in wide use, concerns regarding the environmental damage caused by improper disposal of these items have been on the rise. And now, a French environmental organisation has found several discarded masks and gloves along with other waste inside the Mediterranean.
An NGO by the name of Opération Mer Propre (Operation clean sea), that actively works in cleaning underwater waste from the Mediterranean sea around the Antibes region in southern France, recently collected nine surgical face masks and 14 latex gloves from the sea-bed near coastal Côte d'Azur resort.
Terming the expedition as "operation COVID-19", the group posted photos of their finds on Facebook on May 23. Apart from the masks and gloves, 200 litres of other human waste was also fished out from the ocean floor in the same dive.
The group wrote on Facebook that while the finds were shocking, they were "unfortunately predictable by seeing the number of masks and gloves thrown directly into the gutters".
The group also called for stricter action against disposing all forms of waste into water bodies, claiming that those who threw their beverage cans in the sea were likely the same to dispose of their masks improperly.
Keeping in view the dangers of COVID-19 and its easy spread, the NGO said that "this is only the beginning and if nothing changes it will become a real ecological disaster and maybe even sanitary one".
The group's founder Laurent Lombard told the BBC that though the seabed was littered with all kinds of human waste including plastic and glass bottles, food wrappers and other discarded objects, masks were a relatively new find in the sea-bed.
"These masks, we haven't had them for long, and we're going to have billions, so I say watch out, it's the beginnings of a new type of pollution," Lombard warned.
The matter of PPE waste disposal has been raised by experts around the world. In the United States, which recently crossed 1 lakh COVID-19 deaths and has one of the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, several state and county health departments have already brought in stricter laws against littering of medical and and PPE waste.
As per the results of an ongoing survey by Louisiana State University professor Mark Benfield who studies microplastic pollution, gloves are most likely to end up as discarded waste amid other PPE gear.
Gloves , wipes and masks are all made of plastic which when imporperly disposed through drains, gutters and other sewage systems, directly reaches water bodies and poses the threat of pollution through microplastic.