COVID-19: Scientists warn wildlife falling victim to PPE litter

A fish caught in a plastic glove sparked the study.
A fish caught in a plastic glove sparked the study. Photo credit: Animal Biology

Scientists are warning PPE, designed to keep humans safe from COVID-19, is threatening the lives of all wildlife through entanglement, entrapment and ingestion. 

While the pandemic may have caused a reduction in air pollution it's seen a huge hike in plastic litter.

Single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves has become part of a growing plastic problem and is taking a toll on wildlife, according to a new study published in Animal Biology. 

Researchers from the Netherlands say it's estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used globally every month. 

A fish discovered trapped in a latex glove during a canal clean-up in the Netherlands sparked the study. 

Researchers were inspired to gather as much data as they could on other instances of PPE negatively affecting animals. 

They discovered several incidents, including what they believe to be the first-ever reported victim of COVID-19 litter globally - a bird which died after becoming entangled in a mask in Canada. 

Face mask entanglement was found to be a common problem for birds - a gull in Essex was struck down by one for two weeks. 

"It had struggled with the mask for two weeks and its limbs and joints were swollen, but it recovered in the South Essex Wildlife Hospital," researchers say. 

Birds weren't the only ones trapped by masks either. The study revealed bats, hedgehogs, pufferfishes, crabs and octopuses have all fallen victim to the disposable death traps. 

PPE was also found to be ingested by several animals including penguins, macaques, birds, cats, dogs and even a six-year-old child who ate part of a mask after it was cooked into a Mcdonald's chicken nugget. 

Reachers say they have only scratched the surface of how PPE has affected wildlife.

"We expect that more examples of interactions between animals and PPE litter can be found from sources in other languages." 

They say the study is important for understanding the impact single-use items can have.

"As we deal with a recently introduced and relatively easily recognizable type of litter, monitoring its impact on animals can provide us with a unique insight of the impact such a type of single-use plastic can have.

"The pandemic is not over yet, and the amount of PPE used may only increase, and will continue to threaten wildlife way beyond the time access to a vaccine becomes available."