Personal protective equipment donned by the general public to slow the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus is being tossed away in parking lots, left behind in shopping carts and blowing around city streets.
The substantial increase in improperly discarded face masks, sanitary wipes and rubber, latex and nitrile gloves is a growing concern for the Solid Waste Association of North America.
Although it's not certain how long the virus that causes COVID-19 survives on surfaces, the World Health Organization says studies suggest it may persist for a few hours or up to several days, depending on the type of surface and temperature or humidity of the environment.
Despite publicity about the study findings, SWANA officials point to reports of synthetic gloves and a variety of face masks scattered outside essential businesses in Chicago, New York and Boston.
"No one should be leaving used plastic gloves or masks on the ground in a parking lot or tossing them into the bushes," David Biderman, SWANA executive director and CEO, said in a statement. "Discarded contaminated PPE on the ground increases the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and has negative impacts on the environment."
The Maryland-based trade group, which represents 11,000 public and private professionals in the solid waste management field, is urging Americans to properly dispose of used PPE in trash cans.
Many Americans have been wearing disposable gloves for more than a month and the number of people wearing masks increased April 3 when federal officials recommended face coverings for situations where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, particularly in areas with an outbreak.
Some individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (asymptomatic) or haven't yet developed symptoms (pre-symptomatic) but can transmit the virus to others through droplets generated by speaking, coughing or sneezing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC recommends using a simple face covering to slow the spread of the virus by people who may have it but not know it.
The droplets from coughs and sneezes are too heavy to hang in the air and quickly fall on surfaces, according to the WHO, which says people can be infected either by breathing in the virus or touching a contaminated surface and then their eyes, nose or mouth.
So, while scientists work on a vaccine, the best was to prevent the respiratory disease is to avoid exposure to the virus. SWANA says everyone can do their part to slow the spread by practicing sanitary behavior, properly disposing all masks, gloves, and wipes, and following social distancing orders.
SWANA also reminds the public to use fresh PPE to avoid cross contamination, and again, when done with the protective gear to find a trash can to discard it.