Mask litter is an overlooked risk for spreading coronavirus, Air Force official says
By ERICA EARL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 8, 2020
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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — They are everywhere in the coronavirus pandemic and easily spotted almost any place in Japan: face masks.
They fall from pockets or are callously discarded; they lie limp in parking lots or collect in gutters.
At Yokota, the home of U.S. Forces Japan in western Tokyo, littered and improperly discarded masks are an overlooked risk for spreading the coronavirus, said Senior Master Sgt. Charles Patterson, the superintendent for operations and engineering for the 374th Civil Engineering Squadron, on Tuesday.
Properly disposing of masks and other trash can stem the virus’ spread, Patterson told Stars and Stripes.
For example, since March any waste from new arrivals living in temporary housing at Yokota during the required, 14-day quarantine is immediately incinerated at the base recycling and disposal facility.
“Anyone on quarantine who has either tested positive or may potentially have coronavirus creates a contact hazard for anything they have touched,” he said.
Yokota is one of only a few U.S. installations in the region to have an incinerator on base, Patterson said. A fixture at the recycling center since 1984, the incinerator aids in disease containment.
Not just masks, but all garbage generated by quarantined personnel is burned; none of it is recycled, Patterson said. Incinerating all that trash protects the base population from viruses present even on plastic, he said.
Masks and other personal protective gear should be properly disposed of, and no one should pick up a discarded mask with their bare hands, Patterson said.
Masks, gloves and other personal protective gear need to be bagged prior to being thrown into a dumpster, Shoko Suto, the Yokota solid waste program manager, said Tuesday. “If someone doesn’t properly dispose of their mask, they could be exposing others to risk,” Suto said.
Yokota’s environmental chief, Aleksandra Kirk, said she is concerned less about mask litter as a biohazard than with improperly discarded personal protective equipment contributing to environmental problems.
Discarded masks, like other types of litter, can clog storm drains, which creates flooding and further pollution, she said.
The Yokota environmental office traditionally hosts an annual installation-wide cleanup on Earth Day in April, but the event was canceled this year because of the coronavirus, Kirk said.
Patterson said he shares Kirk’s concerns about masks contributing to litter on base, especially when it comes to American relations with the Japanese people.
“We are ambassadors in a country that is very gracious and supportive,” he said. “It is our responsibility to take care of this environment.”