Greenspace: Microplastics present an emerging threat to environment, human health

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We’re swimming in plastic. We’re eating plastic. Now, it’s raining and snowing plastic.

An estimated 8 million tons of plastic are discarded into oceans each year. That plastic breaks down into small particles and fibers — microplastics — that don't biodegrade. Microplastics have now been found everywhere on earth including the deepest, most remote parts of the ocean . Now studies have found plastics in the rain and snow in remote locations.

A study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that 90 percent of rainwater samples from eight different locations in the Rocky Mountains contain microplastics.

The findings were unexpected and derailed the original intent of the USGS study, which was to analyze rainwater for evidence of nitrogen pollution.

Although most of the microplastics in that study were found in rainwater samples collected near urban areas, remote location samples weren’t spared. One site, identified as "CO98" by the researchers, is a remote spot away from human activity and more than 10,400 feet above sea level.


This news comes on the heels of findings published by the Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany that microplastics permeate snowfall in the Arctic and the Alps — hardly hotbeds of human activity.

Microplastics are defined as plastics less than 5 millimeters in size. The plastics found in both studies were invisible to the naked eye. Researchers had to magnify the samples by 20 times to see them.

So far, comprehensive research is lacking on the health effects on humans from ingesting plastic. And we do eat a lot of it  — about 50,000 pieces on average a year.

The German research showed the most common microplastics were from polymer-based protective coatings on vehicles. The second most common were rubber, polyethylene and other types of plastic that include nylon. The smallest particles were the most abundant, he team found. However, their equipment could not detect particles smaller than 11 microns. Researchers expressed concern that plastics too small to detect were likely in the samples and therefore the air.

At smaller than 11 microns, microplastics could penetrate organic cell walls and penetrate organs.

Airborne microplastic could be bad news. Research is limited on the effects of plastics on lung health, but the researchers did cited a 1998 study  of microplastic in human lungs. It found inhaled fibers were present in cancerous lung specimens. That study tabbed plastic fibers as "candidate agents contributing to the risk of lung cancer."

While avoiding plastic packaged foods and plastic water bottles can help mitigate some of the plastic we consume, these studies show there’s only so much we can do to avoid ingesting or inhaling plastics. They’re a part of the environment now. 

Since we don't have comprehensive studies on the health effects of ingesting plastic, the best we can do is try to mitigate its introduction into the environment. If we don't, it won't take a study to figure out the "unsafe" levels to have in our food and environment — we'll find out the hard way we exceeded them after the ill effects become apparent.

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