The potential impact of face masks on Belgian public health and the environment: evaluation and policy recommendations.

At the request of the federal minister of Environment, the Superior Health Council examined the environmental and health impact of mouth mask use, leading to the following conclusions:

  1. The protection provided by mouth masks during a pandemic greatly outweighs the potential health risks of intensive use.
  2. The government should require manufacturers to be more transparent about the chemical composition and safety of their masks.
  3. The heavy environmental impact of mouth mask use can be reduced by investing in mouth masks made of biodegradable material in the future or exploring a post-use revalorisation of mouth masks.

Some mouth masks contain silver to kill off pathogens. For healthcare workers, who are heavily exposed to this, its use makes sense. However, mouth masks already provide an excellent physical barrier. The added benefit of silver for the general public is arguably rather limited. However, the amount of silver users inhale is generally below critical health values. Mouth masks often also contain titanium dioxide (TiO2) as a whitening agent. Because of the potential health risks, the Council recommends banning TiO2 in disposable masks based on the precautionary principle. Traces of other harmful substances were also found, but their intake generally remains very limited and below the health standard. Regarding the health impact of micro- and nanoplastics, more research is needed. The Superior Health Council therefore supports the creation of an independent reference lab for nanomaterials.