MILWAUKEE - Masks on the ground have become a common sight during the coronavirus pandemic. Are they safe to pick up? Could you catch COVID-19 from a mask on the ground?
Since the pandemic began, 129 billion paper masks are being used monthly.
"Now, as the pandemic has gone on, the availability of paper masks has improved significantly so you’re seeing more and more of those," said Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health chief quality officer.
Those masks are ending up as litter on the streets.
"The important thing is that you dispose of those appropriately, so there’s no big danger at putting those in the trash," said Dr. Pothof.
Dr. Jeff Pothof
But what about picking up the masks off the street?
"For a couple of days, if you were infected and breathed vapor into that mask while it’s moist, that would pose risks to transmit to other folks, but once it dries and it’s been 24 or 48 hours, there’s really no risk there," said Dr. Pothof.
After it's been on the ground for a couple of days, there might not be a danger to your health, but paper masks are a danger to the environment.
"The issue with single-use plastic is that it’s really perfect. It solves a problem that we have immediately, and it’s very very lightweight," said Dr. Marissa Jablonski, executive director of the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin. "The problem that comes from it -- it easily blows out of pockets, out of car doors, out of trash bins that are open."
According to environmentalists with the Urban Ecology Milwaukee, those masks then travel downhill and end up in our lakes.
"I mean, they say that the plastic in the mask disappears in 30 years," said Ken Leinbach with the Urban Ecology Center. "Well, that’s just not true at all. It degrades into microplastic, but those last practically forever."
The pandemic is not over yet. To reduce the paper mask waste, local environmentalists and health officials encourage people to wear cloth masks and wash them every few days.
"It really set back the issue of plastic because people often don’t think that’s very serious until it is, and we’re hitting that point where it is," said Leinbach.
FOX6 did ask about recycling and reusing the masks, but according to the Urban Ecology Center, local recycling plants are not able to recycle the masks because they get caught in the machines.