Wrapped around a bird’s beak while out for a swim.
Nestled among the twigs and leaves of a nest.
Caught in the quills of a hedgehog.
These are just some of the 114 images of animals dealing with COVID-19 masks that have become part of new research showing the effect of personal protective equipment (PPE) on wildlife around the globe.
Published in Science of The Total Environment, the Canadian-led study tracked the effect of PPE litter on animals from the start of the pandemic to December 2021.
The images, which span 23 countries, show that while much attention was given to donning PPE in response to COVID-19, there wasn’t enough emphasis on its safe disposal, researchers say. They say it’s time to take action.
“It should scare everyone,” says lead author Justine Ammendolia. “As we’re protecting ourselves against a global health emergency, there’s very little attention being paid towards how we’re taking care of our environment.”
This study built on one from the Netherlands in 2020 that found just under 30 cases of animals interacting with PPE, says Ammendolia.
“What our study showed is that over the course of multiple years, that number was actually even more exaggerated than what we thought,” said the PhD student in resource and environmental studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Ammendolia and Shoshanah Jacobs, an associate professor in integrative biology at the University of Guelph, had previously released a study on pandemic litter after documenting 1,300 pieces of PPE in Toronto in 2020.
As a result of the earlier study, they weren’t surprised to see animals entangled and affected by PPE, Jacobs said.
“But I think what really is … reassuring is how much people care about it,” said the study’s principal investigator.
“In order to stop and notice something like a photo of it and document it, you’re signalling a significant amount of caring about that situation. That’s an important message.”
Still, Ammendolia said the work, which included researchers from the U.K., took a toll.
“As a scientist, seeing image after image of animals being killed, of being maimed, it’s absolutely heartbreaking,” she said.
“Making sure that people use that sadness and anger and frustration and helplessness and turn it into action within their own lives and within their own communities is extremely critical.”
Among the challenges the researchers highlight is a reluctance among people to touch discarded PPE or waste bins.
COVID had people shying away from touching surfaces, Ammendolia said. “Our waste-disposal practises haven’t really reflected how to do things in a touch-free environment.”
Steve Hrudey, a University of Alberta professor emeritus in laboratory medicine and pathology, said discarded PPE isn’t highly hazardous and doesn’t pose much risk of infection.
“The virus doesn’t survive beyond hours to days, particularly if exposed to sunlight,” he said.
For Ammendolia, the research is a rallying cry.
“The issue of plastic pollution isn’t just in Canada, it’s global,” she said. “We all have to act within our communities and put pressure on our politicians to make meaningful change.”
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