Corona / Environment

Masks – How to be a responsible mask user?

There was a time when masks were worn either by bandits or superheroes and we all look up in awe to see spiderman, batman, and the like, donning masks and zipping past to fight villains. Now comes the CoViD era when it is mandatory to wear one even though one may not be a superhero. However, we sure can become a superhero by being a responsible user of masks.

While all of you may be aware of the need to maintain social distancing and the need to wear a mask while moving around, most of us are blissfully unaware of what to do with these masks, gloves and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) used at home, in public, or in a hospital or health care facility.

Masks – the barriers between the pathogens and your body:

Masks are an armour against the air borne viruses which can enter your body through the nose or mouth when droplets containing these pathogens linger after an infected person has coughed or sneezed in the vicinity. In a similar manner gloves are the armour against picking up viruses from contaminated surfaces which may then gain entry into your body when you touch your face after touching a surface which has been contaminated (which may not come with a blaring red warning sign and is most likely to be inconspicuous to a commoner).

Masks can be broadly grouped under three heads:

  1. Medical/surgical 3-ply masks – made of non-woven fabric using a melt blowing process. They are largely fluid resistant and can be used in regular settings if the fittings are tight and well-sealed. Most of these masks are disposable in nature.
  2. Cloth masks – can be easily made at home using a clean scarf, bandana or stole or stitched using a piece of fabric. The advantage is that these masks can be reused after thorough washing.
  3. N-95 masks – These are made of high quality filters which prevent almost 95% of airborne particles from penetrating through it to the airway of the wearer, making them ideal for health care professionals in the frontline of the CoViD war. These masks have limited reuse ability

Inappropriate disposal of used masks – the hazards:

As you take a stroll, especially in countries with inadequate waste disposal mechanisms, it is not uncommon to see any of these lying on the ground, many times being a play thing for stray dogs, or awaiting to be picked up by a vagabond who cannot afford to buy a new mask. Then comes the business-minded opportunity-seekers who get them picked up, washed and then proceed to hoodwink gullible people by selling it as new. Yes, don’t be shocked…there are scams like that underway as well.

In addition, stands the risk of an added environmental hazard with the mountains of such disposable PPE getting piled up at garbage fills, awaiting a fate which no one yet knows. For all we know we may have a new term for environmental biology getting added on to water, land, air-pollution – mask pollution. How to prevent this mask pollution is another area of concern which experts are working on.

Well, horrifying as it may sound, what can we as responsible citizens do to ensure, we remain safe, the environment is safe and our population remains safe?

Ideal usage of masks:

  • We don masks for our safety as well as of those we interact with – that’s the first step to being a responsible citizen. Now what is the ideal way to don a mask?
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before picking up a clean mask.
  • Use the strings alone as a way of practise. It may not matter while donning one, but would be of use to make it a habit, since it is imperative to do this while doffing or removing one.
  • Ensure that the mask is a good fit, by ensuring that there are seals made between the skin and the fabric. The mask has to cover the nose, and rest as high up the nose as possible, and cover the mouth completely all the way upto the chin.

One may wear an eye protective goggles or spectacles as an additional safety to prevent droplets from splashing into the eye which has been regarded as another point of entry for the Coronavirus.

There we are ready to step out into the world. As we move, it is imperative to keep in mind that there could have been virus particles lurking in the air which has settled on the outer surface of the mask. From this time point onward as you leave the safe sanctuary of your house, the outer side of your mask is an absolute no-touch zone. Any handling to be done, is to be only by touching the strings of the mask. When there is a need to remove the mask (should not be done unless you want to change the mask due to potential contamination or moisture collection), use the strings to remove it WITHOUT touching any of the outside surface and put it in a plastic bag for disposal. Clean your hands thoroughly and then don a new mask if still outside home. This bag can be kept for 72 hours before disposing it in a facility since that is around the time after which a viable infective virus cannot survive on inanimate surfaces.

Proper disposal of masks:

While most of you may be aware of mask wearing etc, we may not have thought about disposal of the same. So what do you do with this collected pile of used masks which may have some viruses lurking on them? The safest thing to be done is to bag it as described and dispose it in appropriate bins specified for the same. If there is no such facility as is the case in some areas, you may want to burn/bury it to ensure there is no spread of the same. These may be shortcuts and the efficient way would be handing over such waste at a collection point in the community to waste disposal authorities who may efficiently dispose off the same. If it is not available, it may be wise to collectively have one in your society where used masks can be disposed off and then picked up by a waste disposal authorised person for incineration etc.

The key points to remember are:

  • Not to touch the outside of the mask and then press the elevator button, or to open a door handle or touch any other surface.
  • Washing hands thoroughly after removing and safely disposing a mask or other PPE.
  • Not to trash used masks in regular garbage bins or to dump them on the ground or on the roads.
  • To ensure that they can be destroyed by pulling off the strings or shredding to prevent reuse and recycling of such hazardous PPE (this may not be advisable if you are not equipped or trained since you may have to clean yourself thoroughly during the shredding process, but could be attempted as a community).

Save yourself, your family and friends, your society and most important – your environment by being a responsible user of such PPE. Prevent mask-pollution, the newest pollution in the block.

Some links for those interested to read more:


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