Countries worldwide are advising or obligating, in some cases, their citizens to wear face masks and gloves in public where social distancing is not possible to protect themselves from the coronavirus. A stance which the World Health Organization joined last month after previously saying there was not enough evidence of the benefits of face covering for healthy people.
Although this measure is protecting us from the virus, the surgical masks and plastic gloves are not being disposed of correctly and in less than a year living with the pandemic, Europe’s rivers are already littered with this protective gear, scientists have warned, reports Phys.org.
France-based Tara Ocean Foundation research organization said in an interview with France Inter radio that the rubbish adds to the plastic debris already flowing down the continent’s major rivers.
Romy Hentinger, head of international cooperation at the foundation, said that in June, researchers "systematically found gloves and masks" along the banks and beaches of rivers across Europe.
"This is worrying," she said. "We can only assume that others (masks and gloves) have already made it to the ocean."
The protective equipment is made of thin layers of polypropylene fibres, which will disintegrate quickly in the ocean, making it impossible to recover, emphasised Hentinger.
Last year, the ‘Foundation Tara Océan’ took samples from nine major rivers in Europe, including the Thames, Elbe, Rhine, Seine, Ebro, Rhone, Tiber, Garonne, and Loire rivers, over a period of six months, and found all estuaries contained microplastics.
"We're waiting for the final results from our scientists," said Hentinger.
Contrary to what was once believed, bits of plastic in ocean water are not broken down by UV rays and salt.
Around eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the world's oceans every year.