(LifeSiteNews) – While disposable masks have become a blight on the environment during the pandemic, tangled up on shores, blowing along roadways and into fields and streams, they may cause far more environmental damage than animals getting tangled up in them. Not only are they laden with the mouth and excretory germs of the humans who discarded them, but it turns out that a key ingredient in the ubiquitous disposable hospital masks seen littering land and seascapes since 2020 — polypropylene — degrades into tiny, microscopic fibers of plastic that a growing body of research shows wreaks havoc on aquatic creatures and has the potential to cause disease, including cancer, in humans.
Now, microplastic fibers have been discovered deep in the lower lungs of living human beings – in almost every person sampled, in fact, in a new study from Great Britain.
Scientists at Hull York medical school in the U.K. found microscopic plastic fragments and fibers – some two millimetres long — in 11 of 13 patients undergoing surgery whose lung tissue they sampled.
Microparticles in the lower lungs
“We did not expect to find the highest number of particles in the lower regions of the lungs, or particles of the sizes we found,” Laura Sadofsky, a senior author of the study, told the Guardian newspaper. “It is surprising as the airways are smaller in the lower parts of the lungs, and we would have expected particles of these sizes to be filtered out or trapped before getting this deep.”
The health implications of tiny plastic fragments invading people’s lungs are unknown, but the question of whether polypropylene and other masks recommended by public health officials are a major source of the growing health concern, especially for children, seems not to have yet crossed the minds of public health experts while there is growing evidence that they contribute to microplastic pollution, which, like other air pollutants, may be leading to the early deaths of millions of people.
Microplastic pollution – the tiny particulate debris of eroding plastics — has become a pressing environmental problem, especially in aquatic settings, where a recent review found that they cause tissue damage, reduced growth, and even mortality, affecting the food chain in aquatic ecosystems. The hazards to human health are a growing concern now, especially as the microparticles have become so ubiquitous.
“Airborne microplastics (MPs) have been sampled globally, and their concentration is known to increase in areas of high human population and activity, especially indoors,” according to the U.K. study. “Respiratory symptoms and disease following exposure to occupational levels of MPs within industry settings have also been reported. It remains to be seen whether MPs from the environment can be inhaled, deposited and accumulated within the human lungs.
The findings of the study confirm that they do, and that this warrants further investigation of their role in disease.
Theresa Tam: Use polypropylene masks
What’s odd is that no one – least of all those charged with preserving the health of the public — seems to be connecting this problem to the world suddenly globally saturated in disposable, plastic degrading hospital face masks.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, updated mask recommendations in the fall of 2020, for example, and said they should be at least three layers instead of two, preferably including a layer of polypropylene fabric.
The middle layer of surgical masks is melt-blown fabric that generates nano- and microplastics during use and reuse that can lead to the risk breathing the particles in on inhalation.
It was not something Tam seemed concerned with, if she was aware of the potential for harm, yet research had already established that people could breathe in tiny inflammatory particles of polypropylene and that work environments with high levels of microplastics also had high levels of disease among workers.
In 1998, a U.S. study identified microplastics in the lungs of cancer patients and concluded that they were “candidate agents contributing to the risk of lung cancer.”
Microplastics were detected in human blood for the first time in March and it was demonstrated that they are transported around the body and deposit in various organs. They have been detected in feces of babies and adults in the past – and at especially high levels in infants fed using plastic bottles.
Masks increase microplastic inhalation
A recent study of microplastics from six different kinds of masks worn during the COVID-19 pandemic found that only masks that were never cleaned and worn for 720 hours resulted in less “spherical-type microplastic inhalation risk” compared with not wearing a mask. Meanwhile, fiber-like microplastic inhalation risk increased in all groups, except for N95 mask wearers, over time.
Cleaning masks by various procedures, including UV light, regular washing and letting them air-dry in the sun, only led the materials in masks to degrade into fibrous microplastics, increasing the risk of microplastic inhalation in all cases.
Wearing the same mask for 720 hours without cleaning it, as many people including children do, however, poses serious health threats of its own. A group of concerned Florida parents sent swabs from their children’s face masks to a laboratory at the University of Florida for testing and found them contaminated with a multitude of dangerous pathogens, including one or more strains of bacteria that cause pneumonia, meningitis, strep throat, gum disease, acne, yeast infections and ulcers, as well as antibiotic resistant germs.
Daycare masks obstruct breathing
Health agencies dismiss concerns about pathogens on masks, telling consumers to change their masks frequently and avoid touching them. They are aware of the problem of other pollutant ingredients in the face coverings, however. The Quebec government recalled 3.1 million masks it had distributed to 15,000 nursery facilities that failed safety checks in the province in 2020. The masks were not able to filter bacteria consistently, had problems with resistance to fluids and obstructed breathing, though tens of thousands of preschool children had been required to wear them for hours on the day.
‘Early pulmonary toxicity’
Other potential lung pollutants have been found in masks distributed to toddlers and children. Daycare workers had noticed that they felt like they were swallowing cat hair while wearing gray and blue SNN200642 masks imported from China for a while, according to Radio-Canada.
Health Canada warned of the potential for “early pulmonary toxicity” from the microscopic graphene particles inside these masks. In March 2021, it recalled the face masks without investigating the health of the children who had been forced to wear them at length, day after day.
The Canadian public health agency also recalled another Chinese brand of masks being sold in Canada in July 2021 because they also contained inhalable graphene – a substance of unprecedented strength only discovered in 2004 — that had been shown to cause inflammation in the lungs of animals.
The agency allowed Shandong Shengquan New Materials Co. Ltd. to resume selling its graphene masks in Canada in September, however, after the agency said it was satisfied that the amount of toxic graphene being inhaled was insufficient to cause disease.