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TUCSON - A protective mask is on the ground just a short walk from a garbage bin. This is outside the El Con Walmart. But personal protection equipment has been littered throughout the city. We saw used masks, gloves and sanitary wipes.

Dr. Marc Verhougstraete is an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the U of A.

“Once this virus is on plastics it can persist up to three days," he said.

We asked the professor how much of a risk of contamination someone has who may come in contact with PPE debris. “There is always a risk for infection when we’re dealing with contaminated, discarded debris, so yes there is a chance,” he said. “I don’t think we should let one problem become another problem.”

It’s a problem in other cities nationwide. PPE debris has been left on beaches and flushed down toilets, leading to clogged sewage treatment plants.

Tucson councilman Steve Kozachik said he’s seen PPE debris strewn all over town. “It’s also simply litter. I mean just care enough about your community that you don’t leave your litter behind,” Kozachik told us. “So there’s a little bit of irony going on. People with good intentions to wear a mask, to protect others. Then drop it on the ground and then they’re potentially creating a health risk for others as well.”

If you see PPE debris, tell the property manager or store owner. If you have gloves on, scientists say you can pick it up and throw it out. Afterwards don’t touch your face and wash your hands immediately.

The UA professor said, ”Just because we’re at risk for coronavirus doesn’t mean we need to put environmental contamination on that list as well, so we should really properly use and dispose of the PPE in order to protect not only human health but environmental health.”

Kozachik said, “Don’t go out and create a new health risk because somebody’s got to go out and clean that up.”

If you have any story you would like us to investigate, email us at or call our tip line at 520-955-4444.

Matthew Schwartz

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