“[Plastic’s] in the rain, it’s in the snow. It’s a part of our environment now.”
— Gregory Wetherbee, hydrologist
It was inevitable.
Plastic waste, which eventually breaks down into tiny bits of “microplastic,” has been found in our rivers, wetlands and, most famously, our oceans. Now, in a development that’s not especially surprising but still highly disturbing, microplastics have been found high in the Pyrenees — at least 60 miles from any source of plastic pollution — and in other remote, high-altitude areas such as new snow on Swiss glaciers and Rocky Mountain streams.
And just this month, significantly high concentrations of microplastics were found in Arctic snow. In an article published in Science Advances, German Arctic researcher Gunnar Gerdts and his team reported finding up to an astonishing 14,400 microplastic particles per liter of melted snow.
How did it get there?
There are just two possibilities, Gerdts told the Los Angeles Times: “from the water or from the air.” While we know that plastic debris, including microplastics, are transported by ocean currents, the recent discoveries of microplastics in remote land areas, as well as in the atmospheric fallout of cities ranging from Tehran to Dongguan, China, have engendered a growing, if not completely confirmed scientific consensus: The plastics are airborne.
Like spiders’ gossamer, spiders themselves and myriad other bits of lightweight detritus and living organisms, the microplastics (shreds of plastic bags and bits of broken-down bottles) and microfibers (threads from rayon and polyester clothing) are swept into the atmosphere on updrafts. There they float until they come down on their own — forming a “plastic smog” in certain cities with high pollutant concentrations — or are dissolved in droplets of water and precipitated as rain or snow.
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“Through this pathway,” Gerdt’s study concludes, “[microplastics] likely find their way into soil and aquatic environments and therefore also into food chains.”
What does it matter? For most people, it was one thing when there was a large gyre of plastic debris floating in the middle of the Pacific — out there. But now we’re learning that the plastic is “in here” — that is, in our lungs and digestive systems. We’re breathing and eating the stuff, and, short of living in financially and physically impossible “controlled environments,” we can’t avoid getting it into our systems.
Will it hurt us?
Here are some factoids I gleaned from a couple of hours of Internet research. I’ll start with recent a study by the University of Wisconsin in the Duluth/Superior region at the west end of Lake Superior. Called "'Plastic Smog': Are We Breathing Plastic," the study found that “… the average human [in that area] inhales up to 989 microfibers per day.”
The paper went on to say, “It has been shown that microplastic will absorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs) where levels become highly concentrated due to the large surface area … ,” and that, “One study found synthetic and cellulosic fibers in 97% of malignant and 83% of non-cancerous lung tissue.
“Both the chemicals sorbing onto the plastic and leaching from it,” it continues, “are possible endocrine disruptors and are carcinogenic which qualifies the microplastics … as chemicals of emerging concern and they were recommended [by another study] to be classified as hazardous waste.”
I came across several papers that discussed the number of microfibers released by washing clothes, with estimates varying from 700 fibers per load to 1900 fibers per garment. (Fibers released by dryers were not mentioned.) Because sewage plants can’t filter out microfibers, the application of sewage sludge as fertilizer onto farmlands creates an additional pathway into our bodies.
Because its “fossils” could be formed from plastics, someone quipped that future geologists might call our era the “Plasticene”— that is, if there are any future geologists at our ecological house.