The demand for facial masks remains high. However, little is known about discarded masks as a potential refuge for contaminants and to facilitate enrichment and spread of antibiotic resistance genes (ARG) in the environment. We address this issue by conducting an in-situ time-series experiment to investigate the dynamic changes of ARGs, bacteria and protozoa associated with discarded masks. Masks were incubated in an estuary for 30 days. The relative abundance of ARGs in masks increased after day 7 but levelled off after 14 days. The absolute abundance of ARGs at 30 days was 1.29 × 1012 and 1.07 × 1012 copies for carbon and surgical masks, respectively. According to normalized stochasticity ratio analysis, the assembly of bacterial and protistan communities was determined by stochastic (NST = 62%) and deterministic (NST = 40%) processes respectively. A network analysis highlighted potential interactions between bacteria and protozoa, which was further confirmed by culture-dependent assays, that showed masks shelter and enrich microbial communities. An antibiotic susceptibility test suggested that antibiotic resistant pathogens co-exist within protozoa. This study provides an insight into the spread of ARGs through discarded masks and highlights the importance of managing discarded masks with the potential ecological risk of mask contamination.


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Zhou, S., Lin, C., Yang, K., Yang, L., Yang, X., Huang, F., Neilson, R., Su, J. & Zhu, Y. 2022, 'Discarded masks as hotspots of antibiotic resistance genes during COVID-19 pandemic', Journal of Hazardous Materials, 425, article no: 127774. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhazmat.2021.127774

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Last updated: 16 June 2022
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