Research news

Disposable medical masks represent a new potential burden on the terrestrial environment

Publish Date: 27.12.2022

Category: Outstanding research achievements, Interdisciplinary research, Our contribution to sustainable development goals

Sustainable development goals: 6 Clean water and sanitation, 11 Sustainable cities and communities, 12 Responsible consumption and production (Indicators)

Researchers of the Biotechnical Faculty of the University of Ljubljana, the Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology of the University of Ljubljana, the Slovenian National Building and Civil Engineering Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam were among the first to examine the impact of microplastics from medical masks on terrestrial invertebrates.

Plastic pollution and the disintegration of plastic into smaller particles, i.e. microplastics, is a pressing environmental issue. Despite major legislative breakthroughs in restricting the use of disposable plastics, their use increased sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial research on this subject already shows a clear increase in environmental pollution with plastic PPE, prevalent among which are medical masks.

Researchers studied the effects of microplastics from medical masks on terrestrial invertebrates, which are commonly used in environmental risk assessments. Extensive physico-chemical characterisation of microplastics shows that they contain a range of organic additives and metals. However, the concentration of these substances is too low to affect the test organisms when leached from the masks. Microplastics from masks do not cause major adverse effects on organisms, but when exposed, they trigger immune responses and changes in metabolic processes in some organisms. Future studies will focus on understanding the effects of long-term exposure to microplastics on organisms. In addition to providing a basic understanding of how organisms respond to exposure to microplastics, the study will help to raise awareness of the importance of proper disposal of waste medical masks.


Figure: From the three layers of masks, the researchers obtained three different types of microplastics with different physico-chemical properties. While exposure to microplastics did not affect the survival, growth and reproduction of the test organisms, an immune response and changes in metabolic processes were observed in crustaceans. Author: Anita Jemec Kokalj.

The published research was part of a series of studies on the effects of different microplastics on terrestrial invertebrates published in recent years by researchers from the Biotechnical Faculty at the University of Ljubljana and their co-authors.


Doc. dr. Anita Jemec Kokalj, Andraž Dolar, mag. prof. biol. in mag. mol. funkc. biol., prof. dr. Damjana Drobne, Ana Nagode, dipl. biol., doc. dr. Gregor Marolt, dr. Luka Škrlep, doc. dr. Andrijana Sever Škapin, prof. dr. Cornelis A. M. van Gestel.


JEMEC KOKALJ, Anita, DOLAR, Andraž, DROBNE, Damjana, ŠKRLEP, Luka, SEVER ŠKAPIN, Andrijana, MAROLT, Gregor, NAGODE, Ana, GESTEL, Cornelis A. M. van. Effects of microplastics from disposable medical masks on terrestrial invertebrates. Journal of hazardous materials, 2022;

DOLAR, Andraž, DROBNE, Damjana, NARAT, Mojca, JEMEC KOKALJ, Anita. Tire microplastics exposure in soil induces changes in expression profile of immune-related genes in terrestrial crustacean Porcellio scaber. Environmental pollution. [Print ed.]. Dec. 2022, vol. 314, [1]-9 str; ttps://

DOLAR, Andraž, DROBNE, Damjana, DOLENEC, Matej, MARINŠEK, Marjan, JEMEC KOKALJ, Anita. Time-dependent immune response in Porcellio scaber following exposure to microplastics and natural particles. Science of the total environment. 20 Apr. 2022, vol. 818, str. 1-10.

JEMEC KOKALJ, Anita, DOLAR, Andraž, TITOVA, Jelizaveta, VISNAPUU, Meeri, ŠKRLEP, Luka, DROBNE, Damjana, VIJA, Heiki, KISAND, Vambola, HEINLAAN, Margit. Long term exposure to virgin and recycled ldpe microplastics induced minor effects in the freshwater and terrestrial crustaceans Daphnia magna and Porcellio scaber. Polymers. 2 Mar. 2021, iss. 5, [article no.] 771, str. 1-17,



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