Plastic, plastic everywhere – airborne microplastics are settling into the most remote corners of the globe

Compared with microplastics in the marine and terrestrial environments, the phenomenon of airborne microplastics is even less well understood.

SOURCEThe Conversation
Microplastics, which can originate from the breakdown of plastic products, can be found practically everywhere on our planet. MrsBrown/Pixabay

Little pieces of plastic can now be found everywhere: from table salt, drinking water and food, to the deep seas, far deserts and most remote mountains. While it’s not surprising to find plastics and microplastics in urban environments where they’re used every day, their appearance in uninhabited corners of the planet is deeply disturbing.

These tiny plastic fragments, many consisting of fibres less than 5mm wide, are lightweight enough to be carried on the wind: a new explanation for the widespread presence of these particles.

A new study published this year has found microplastics in soils collected from sand in the Kavir and Lut deserts of Iran, with an average abundance of about 0.02 microplastic particles per gram of sand. Given little evidence of any large plastic objects in these areas, the particles were probably deposited in the desert by the wind.

Last year, researchers collected hundreds of wet and dry environmental samples from the most isolated areas in the US, such as the Grand Canyon.

They found that 98% of all samples contained microplastics, and that nearly 70% of those microplastics were transported to these remote locations by rain and wind. Most of these particles were synthetic microfibres, used for making clothes.

In Europe, researchers have analysed snow samples in Fram Strait, a sea passage between Svalbard and Greenland, to look for microplastics. They were successful, confirming the contamination of the Arctic atmosphere.

So far, although comparatively little research overall has been done on airborne microplastics, studies like these consistently highlight that atmospheric transport of plastic particles is a major contributor to the ubiquity of plastic around the world.

Part of the Grand Canyon
Even uninhabited areas of the world, like the Grand Canyon in the US, are polluted with microplastics. KeYang/Pixabay

Globally, it has been estimated that up to 33.76  tonnes of atmospheric microplastic fibres can be generated in a year. And this amount is only going to grow as plastic production increases. This spells bad news for the health of our environment.

Effects are not well understood

We have already spent over two decades studying microplastics in the sea and on land, but the data we’ve gathered is still just a drop in the ocean. That means many uncertainties remain about the true impact of microplastics.

What we do know is that even pristine rain and snow now contain a cocktail of different types of microplastics, chemicals, natural and artificial particles.

Although the reported amount of microplastics in the air appears to be relatively low, we can’t predict all of the potential ecological and health risks posed by long-term exposure to microplastics, especially in combination with other illness-causing airborne pollutants such as nitrogen and sulphur oxides already found in the environment.

A heap of small plastic particles
Microplastics threaten the health of animals, plants and oceans. Oregon State University/Flickr

Studies looking at what happens when microplastics accumulate in animal tissues – for example, altering immune responses and increasing inflammation – may have implications for how the human body responds to intrusion by plastic. But we need more research to understand exactly how much humans are exposed to microplastics and what these particles do inside our bodies.

Compared with microplastics in the marine and terrestrial environments, the phenomenon of airborne microplastics is even less well understood. That means more research must be undertaken urgently to understand the consequences of atmospheric microplastic exposure to plant, animal and human health. After all, it’s reasonable to assume it is not good news that we are all breathing and walking in plastic wind, rain and snow.The Conversation

Elvis Genbo Xu, Assistant Professor, Biology, University of Southern Denmark and Xiaoyu Duan, PhD Researcher in Biology, University of Southern Denmark

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Dr. Genbo Xu (Elvis) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology, University of Southern Denmark (SDU). He received his B.Sc and M.Sc in Biology and Genetics, respectively, from Ocean University of China, and his Ph.D. from The University of Hong Kong as a prestigious James Henry Scott Scholar in 2015. Prior to joining in SDU, he was a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Riverside, USA (2015-2018) and McGill University, Canada (2018-2019) in the field of ecotoxicology. Dr. Xu’s research combines techniques from environmental toxicology, genetics, toxicogenomics, and ecological risk assessment, to investigate the eco-environmental impacts of emerging pollutants such as endocrine disrupting chemicals, crude oil, and pesticides. His recent interests have focused on revealing the hazards and toxic mechanisms of nanoplastics and plastic-associated chemicals. He has published 50+ peer-reviewed SCI articles in PNAS, Accounts of Chemical Research, Environmental Science & Technology, ES&T Letters, Environmental Science: Nano, etc. He is a recipient of two patents and 20+ academic awards, such as ACS Editors’ Choice Article, The Most Read Article in ES&T, RSC Runner-up Best Paper, SETAC Recent Graduate Award, etc. He is also an active member of SETAC, SOT, and Sigma Xi. Xiaoyu Duan is currently a PhD researcher at the Department of Biology, University of Southern Denmark. Her PhD research focuses on assessing the biological impacts of micro- and nanoplastics and plastic-associated chemicals, using in vivo, in vitro assays, image and chemical analyses.