USC scientist leading groundbreaking world research on COVID
University of the Sunshine Coast marine biologist Dr Kathy Townsend has joined forces with academics in archaeology and social policy to highlight the environmental pollution resulting from the COVID pandemic response.
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Dr Townsend, who leads “groundbreaking” international research into the impact of debris on marine life, has collaborated with leading voices from other fields to enter images of a sea lion playing with a face mask in the Galapagos Islands and a dead sea turtle found off Queensland with a mask in its gut into an archaeological record of the environmental impact of COVID-19.
Dr Townsend’s contributions were published in a journal paper released this week in Antiquity, with its authors suggesting that “applying an archaeological lens to COVID waste and giving it the status of archaeological material can add to understanding of the pandemic and inform policies that may mitigate its longer-term environmental impact”.
“The logical leap is that during COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions there should be a reduction in marine debris showing up in our world oceans, but that isn’t the case,” Dr Townsend said.
“Marine debris has just been replaced with different kinds of rubbish – not the least of which are PPE (personal protective equipment) items such as discarded gloves and of course, single-use face masks, which have quickly become the symbol of the coronavirus.
“With COVID-19, the related plastic is both omnipresent and highly resilient, and its effects are diverse and significant.”
The study said increased pollution caused by COVID-specific plastics – mostly made to stop the spread of infection – would characterise the pandemic.
The study authors include lead Professor John Schofield, Director of Cultural Heritage Studies at the University of York, University of York PhD candidate Estelle Praet and Dr Joanna Vince from the University of Tasmania’s School of Social Sciences.
Dr Townsend said social media was used to analyse more than 18,000 images of marine debris posted by people across the world on different platforms, including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
“During the early days of the pandemic, when it was thought that the virus was spread through direct contact, disposable gloves were the primary type of debris found between April and May 2020,” Dr Townsend said.
“However, as it became clear that it was caused by airborne transmission, the debris found in the environment started to include single-use masks.”
Two of Dr Townsend’s PhD candidates have recorded graphic evidence of the impact of environmental pollution resulting from COVID waste.
“We recently autopsied a dead green sea turtle that had washed up on a Sunshine Coast Beach and found a disposable face mask among more than 500 items of rubbish in its stomach,” she said.
“Another PhD student researching plastics pollution in the Galapagos Islands also recorded a sea lion playing with a face mask.”