As the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading fast across the globe, the use of face masks is also increasing rapidly. And, if the ever-expanding mass of such masks is not disposed off properly, the fight against Coronavirus is not going to pay off.
People in China and Japan used to wear the masks at public places even before the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus pandemic. Comparatively, they have a mechanism in place to dispose off such waste in a proper manner.
In India, however, we see that the use of face masks is picking up now as both awareness and fear about Coronavirus takes the center stage. But the disposal of such masks hasn’t been given the required attention.
Masks Strewn Carelessly
Since the COVID-19 outbreak in January, mask use has increased dramatically. However, the disposal has not been done properly and masks are being strewn on footpaths and roads.
The most commonly used single-use masks are made of plastic and a thin strip of metal. They pose grave threat to sanitation workers, general public, environment, marine, animal and birdlife.
Sanitation workers get into direct contact with the waste and because they are part of our community, they can act as transmitting agents. There is a danger of biomedical pollution at landfill sites. There have been instances when loads of face masks have been found floating near beaches and riverbanks as well.
The Coronavirus infection can live for hours or even days in moisture and could be transferred should a person touch it and then their face.
The huge amounts of clinical waste being produced dramatically heighten the risk. There are dangers that the Coronavirus will be spread to garbage collectors and others if waste, that may carry the infection, is not handled properly.
No Disposal Mechanism
There is no mechanism for collection and disposal of masks and medical waste generated by people who are under ‘home quarantine’ across India for having a travel history or showing COVID-19 symptoms.
While some home quarantined individuals are burning the masks, others have no option but to dump them in the garbage. Single-use masks (biomedical waste) are being dumped by users with their household garbage and being picked up by waste collectors unknowingly.
Biomedical or hospital waste means any waste generated during health care, research, testing or related procedures on human beings or animals conducted in hospitals, clinics or laboratories or similar establishments. This is far more dangerous and offensive than domestic waste.
Health Ministry Guidelines
As per a health advisory issued by the Directorate General of Health Services of Ministry of Health issued earlier, used masks especially those used by “patients, caregivers / close contacts” under home quarantine are to be considered “potentially infected.” And should be disinfected with ordinary bleach solution (5%) or sodium hypochlorite solution (1%) and then disposed off either by burning or deep disposal.
Central Pollution Control Board Advisory
CPCB issued guidelines on March 18 about handling and disposal of waste generated while treating or quarantining COVID-19 patients.
Though India already had Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules, 2016, the CPCB guidelines were released to ensure that the waste generated specifically during testing of people and treatment of COVID-19 patients is disposed off in a scientific manner.
These guidelines make specific mention of biomedical waste generated by ‘home care’ patients. “In case of home-care from suspected patients, biomedical waste should be collected separately in yellow bags and handed over to authorised waste collectors engaged by local bodies. ULBs (Urban Local Bodies) should engage CBWTFs (Common Bio-Medical Waste Treatment and Disposal Facility) to pick-up such waste either directly from quarantined houses or identified collection points,” read the guideline.
What’s The Ideal Method To Dispose?
Masks and other protective gear used by infected patients and the medical staff treating them should be sterilised and incinerated at high temperatures in dedicated facilities.
The families in quarantine are not aware of what to do with used masks. However, burning or burying is often impractical due to pressure from neighbours and other residents of the housing society.
Do Not Be Selfish
While using a mask, people think they’re protecting themselves but it’s not just about protecting yourselves, you need to protect everybody by not throwing away the mask properly. To ensure compliance, the government should step in with stringent measures. Taiwan has made mask littering an offence as face mask litterers can be fined up to NT$6,000 and it can serve as an example.