Why You Should Not Burn Your Covid-19 Masks. Here Are The Potential Health Hazards.

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Mask Burning Protest Against COVID-19 Restrictions Held In Idaho

BOISE, ID - MARCH 06: Young attendees toss surgical masks into a fire during a mask burning event at ... [+] the Idaho Statehouse on March 6, 2021 in Boise, Idaho. Citizens and politicians, including the Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin, gathered in at least 20 cities across the state to protest COVID-19 restrictions. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

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Yesterday a gathering of people at the Idaho Capitol building were seen burning used masks, with children being encouraged to pick up the masks and put them into a fire in a barrel. Video of the bonfire has spread like wildfire on social media with many expressing confusion at the images and the meaning of the display, but also concern for the children, who were seen to be standing close to the barrel of burning masks, which was giving out thick smoke and fumes.

Many of the masks appeared to be blue surgical face masks, which are often primarily made of polypropylene, a type of plastic. Polypropylene is widely used as it is also considered “food safe” and is used in a lot of plastic food packaging. But like many types of plastic if burned, release lots of toxic and harmful chemicals. Both children and adults were pictured standing close to the barrel as the masks burned inside, giving off a lot of smoke. So what chemicals were likely to be in that smoke, which the protesters were breathing in?

Thankfully, a truly fascinating scientific review paper from 1988 published in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology looked at studies which had burned polypropylene in several different and exciting ways, including just setting fire to it in normal air, which is probably the most similar method to that used by the Idaho mask burners.

According to the paper, burning polypropylene results in the formation of dozens of different chemicals, some pretty well known and not of concern in this scenario, such as water and carbon dioxide, but some which are certainly toxic. These include formaldehyde, most well-known for preserving biological specimens, acetone- the strong smelling compound used in nail polish remover and methanol, the main component of anti-freeze. Others released by burning polypropylene include xylene, which is used in some laboratories to prepare tissues for microscopy, but only in a specialized fume hood due to its toxic properties, and benzene, a dangerous chemical found in car exhaust and cigarette smoke. Several chemicals such as toluene, found in paint thinner, were also detected. Many of these compounds can cause eye irritation and respiratory problems when breathed in and some of the chemicals found are also listed as probable, or possible carcinogens - linked to the development of cancers.

Although concerning that anyone would be voluntarily breathing in fumes from burning plastic, thankfully, this particular burning barrel of masks was outside where airflow will hopefully have dispersed the toxic fumes quickly before they could cause any significant damage to the children crowded around the barrel.

However, this was not the only hazard the protestors were exposed to yesterday, as the children appeared to be picking up soiled surgical masks with their bare hands, potentially exposing them to a host of harmful pathogens from the original owners of the masks. In a hospital setting, used surgical masks from patients or staff are often disposed of in biohazardous waste bags which are later incinerated in specialist facilities for this purpose, which also trap and filter any dangerous fumes. Both the CDC and WHO recommend that masks are not re-worn once soiled and are either disposed of, or appropriately cleaned if possible.

Neither organization mentions burning masks in their pandemic guidelines, but for at-home disposal of masks, the World Health Organization recommends that masks are discarded in home garbage receptacles, prior to thoroughly washing hands.

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