We love plastic, and use plastics in basically everything. However, with time and wear and tear, plastics are worn down, and little plastic microparticles are released into the air. These microplastics are less than 5 mm (millimeters) long - about the size of a sesame seed or less. Studies are finding them everywhere, including our drinking water, in seafood, all sorts of foods, the dust, and the air in our homes and workplaces. And of course microplastics wind up in our bodies (whether ingesting them through food and beverages, or breathing them in so that they go to the lungs). No one really knows what effects they have on human health, but studies are starting to find harms to animal health.
Well... now there is another cause for concern. A new study finds more than expected amounts of microplastic particles in remote parts of the world (the Alps and Arctic!) where no one expected to find them in large amounts. The German researchers report that the main types of plastic microparticles they found were from varnish, rubber, polyethylene, and polyamide (nylon). The particles are transported through the atmosphere by winds and air currents. View it as air pollution. Bottom line: As humans continue to use more and more plastics, and more gets released into the air, this means we all will absorb more and more microplastics with still unknown impacts on health. Ultimately we all will have to address this issue.
Excerpts from The Atlantic: A Worrisome Discovery in High Arctic Snowfall
In just the past decade, scientists have discovered that microplastics—defined as any plastic detritus that’s about the size of a sesame seed or smaller—are a major new pollutant, the spread of which we’re only now understanding. Microplastics are present in 94 percent of tap water in the United States, according to one study. They form as larger plastic items—toys, clothing, paint chips, car tires—get worn down and torn to shreds.
In a new study, published today in Science Advances, Bergmann and her colleagues looked at whether microplastics collect in the air, as well. They looked for microplastics trapped in snow from the Alps, sea ice from the Arctic Ocean, and snow from the High Arctic island of Svalbard. Snow tends to be good at shaking out particles hanging in the air, so any microplastics in the snow would likely have come from the air, especially in the remote Arctic locations.
Not only did they find microplastics; the “sheer number” the team uncovered shocked Bergmann. “We did expect to find microplastics, but the numbers that we found were a big surprise,” she said. Thousands of particles of microplastic were in nearly every sample from the Arctic; a single liter of snow contained 14,000 grains of the stuff. Microplastics were even more abundant in Europe, where there were as many as 150,000 grains of microplastic per liter of snow.
To translate: If you melted down enough Arctic ice to fill a one-gallon milk jug, it might contain as many as 53,000 shreds of microplastic.
Those microplastics may have fallen as snow, but they arrived in the Arctic through the atmosphere. The study shows that microplastics, shorn from human products and carried by global trade winds, are now accumulating in some of the harshest, most remote places on Earth.
The study also offers some of the strongest evidence so far that microplastics—for which human health risks are still very poorly understood—might be virtually ubiquitous in the air, water, and human environment. Tiny shreds of plastic might enter your lungs when you sniff a spring breeze, the study suggests, and they might slosh around your stomach when you drink a glass of water. Yet we still have little grasp on what, if anything, microplastics do once inside the human body.
In the animal world, microplastics seem to already be causing harm. They can block the digestive tracts of fish and insects. Some chemicals present in plastic might affect animal endocrine systems. In April, a dead sperm whale with 48 pounds of plastic in its system washed ashore in Sardinia.
What was worrying, he said, was that Bergmann and her colleagues found the most particles at the smallest range they looked for. (The new paper could not detect microplastics smaller than 11 micrometers across, which is about the same width as cling wrap.) Since pollution particles are generally more harmful at smaller sizes, it suggests that the study doesn’t capture the most dangerous risks. “The very, very small particles—which likely have the most serious health risks—may be even more ubiquitous in the remote environment, which is especially troubling,” McConnell said.
Excerpts from another article discussing the same study. From National Geographic: Tiny pieces of plastic found in Arctic snow
University of Toronto microplastics researcher Chelsea Rochman, who did not take part in the study, says she was surprised at first to learn that the particles were being transported in the atmosphere. “But, when we take a step back and see the big picture,” she says, “we know that this is not novel for other persistent contaminants.”
The Arctic has long been a sink for pollutants like flame retardants and pesticides, which spiral northward on ocean and wind currents. “Now that we know that microplastics cycle in the atmosphere too,” Rochman says, “maybe we should not be so surprised they are entering the Arctic this way as well.”
The science on the health impacts of microplastics is still evolving. “For human health, we currently know very little,” says Rochman. “There is a lot of concern because we know we are exposed… For wildlife, we know that microplastics enter every level of the food chain in aquatic ecosystems.”
Even worse may be the threat from airborne nanoplastics—so small they’re essentially invisible and about which almost nothing is known so far.
"They may actually enter cells,” says Bergmann. “So we may have a big problem.