A Magellanic penguin in Brazil ingested a face mask. A hedgehog in England became entangled in a glove. An octopus off the coast of France was found seeking refuge under a mask.
Researchers warn on March 22 in Animal Biology that wildlife and ecosystems around the world are suffering the impact of single-use COVID-19 protective equipment. Latex gloves and polypropylene masks that protect people from coronavirus are exacerbating the problem of plastic contamination when not disposed of properly and are causing wildlife deaths (SN: 20/11/20). The study is the first global documentation of the impacts of the COVID-19 litter on wildlife through entanglement, entrapment and ingestion (SN: 15/12/20).
In August 2020, volunteers who cleaned canals in Leiden, the Netherlands, found themselves in a perch (a type of freshwater fish) trapped inside a finger of a latex glove. The trapped fish was the first recorded victim in the wildlife caused by the COVID-19 litter in the Netherlands. The finding shocked two Leiden-based biologists – Auke-Florian Hiemstra and Liselotte Rambonnet – who wanted to know more about the extent of the impact of the COVID-19 litter on wildlife. They started an extensive search, online and in newspapers, to compare examples.
They found 28 such cases from around the world, pointing to a larger global problem. The first victim reported was in April 2020: an American robin in Canada, who appears to have died after becoming entangled in a face mask. Pets are also at risk: in Philadelphia, a domestic cat ingested a glove and a pet dog in Boston that had consumed a face mask. “Animals with plastic in their stomachs can starve,” says Rambonnet of Leiden University.
“What this work does is give us an idea of the extent of the impact of the litter (COVID-19) on wildlife, so that we can make efforts to minimize the consequences,” says Anna Schwarz, sustainable researcher in plastics at TNO, an independent organization for applied scientific research in Utrecht, the Netherlands. This could be a high order: a report released by Hong Kong-based marine conservation organization OceansAsia, for example, estimates that 1.56 million masks were entering the world’s ocean last year, up from 8 to 12 million tons. plastic that reaches the oceans annually.
As the far-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 litter on wildlife become more apparent over time, Hiemstra of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Rambonnet rely on citizen scientists to help them continue to monitor the situation: at www.covidlitter. com, people around the world can submit their comments on the affected wildlife. To curb the growing risks, the study authors recommend switching to reusable whenever possible, as well as cutting off disposal gloves and cutting straps from disposable masks to prevent animals from getting entangled or trapped in them.
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“The document highlights the importance of proper waste management, especially the recycling or disposal of single-use materials,” says Schwarz.
But the situation is not always so serious. Some animals have acquired discarded PPE for their own uses. The COVID-19 litter became so penetrating that birds were observed using face masks and gloves as building materials for their nests. “2020 bird nests are so easy to recognize,” Hiemstra says.