Discarded disposable masks pose a threat to marine life
Disposable face masks could be harmful to wildlife, according to researchers who have observed harmful effects of masks on key marine animals in coastal areas.
Researchers have observed altered behaviors in tidal pool animals that appear to be associated with chemicals leaking from disposable masks. Behavioral effects include signs of stress and reduced ability to detect mates and reproduce.
The effects could have repercussions on the marine food chain, possibly affecting the seafood humans eat, according to the researchers who will present the results of their ongoing experiments on March 3 at the 2022 Ocean Science Meeting, to be held online from February 24 to March 4.
“We are seeing more and more masks in rock pools,” said Laurent Seuront, a marine ecologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, who will present the new research. “It could go up the food chain and all the way to us.”
The rapid proliferation of face mask waste in rocky tidal areas prompted Seuront and an international team, including K. Nicastro of CCMAR (Portugal) and G. Zardi of Rhodes University (South Africa), to investigate how disposable masks could affect key species at the bottom of the marine food web.
Disposable face masks are usually made of plastic fibers, which are made of the same plastic polymer (polypropylene) that has already been shown to have negative effects on aquatic organisms.
The researchers designed experiments to see how long face masks leach chemicals into the water, as well as whether marine invertebrates change their behavior when masks are present. Invertebrates in the study include small crustaceans called copepods, the blue mussel Mytilus edulis and the sea snail Littorina littorea.
Using tanks with simulated rock surfaces and slabs of face mask material, the researchers were able to observe the animals’ behaviors.
The blue mussels moved away from the materials of the face mask, congregating or aggregating, as they usually do to avoid threats. The amount of aggregation is a measure of mussel stress, Seuront explained. In experiments, mussels avoided mask materials and aggregated at a rate of 70%, compared to only 30% in the absence of a mask.
Mussels walk on one foot and have a sensory organ (the osphradium) that allows them to essentially taste the quality of the water around them, Seuront explained.
Their experiments showed that unlike mussels, marine snails did not avoid masks and mask fragments, but consistently showed signs of behavioral stress when crawling on them and preferred uncontaminated surfaces to contaminated ones. The snails also showed signs of tampering with the chemicals. They were less alert after being exposed to leached chemicals, which increases their likelihood of being predatory, Seuront reported.
The copepods, for their part, appeared to have reproductive problems due to exposure to the chemicals in the mask. Male copepods have been observed to be much less able to detect female pheromone trails, making it much more difficult and less likely for them to locate females and reproduce.
The larger problem, Seuront explained, is that these and other small invertebrates feed larger animals in marine food webs. If these invertebrates have problems with disposable masks, the effects can spread through the food web.
“It could go up the food chain and all the way to us,” Seuront said.
Improperly discarded surgical masks threaten the marine ecosystem and the food chain
Ocean Science Meeting 2022: www.aslo.org/osm2022/
Provided by American Geophysical Union
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