At any given time, 1,100 tons of microplastics are floating over the western United States, Wired reports. Plastic is falling from the sky — it’s literally raining plastic.
Imagine yourself in a secluded spot such as the Utah desert or a peaceful forest in Oregon — yet plastic is raining there. “Take a deep breath and get some fresh air along with some microplastics,” the article stated. That imagery alone should shake you to your core. Perhaps this is how microplastics ended up in a human placenta?
Matt Simon, the author of the Wired article, noted that he’d said this before:
“Plastic is the new acid rain.”
New modeling that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that 84% of airborne microplastics in the American West come from the roads outside of major cities, with an additional 11% possibly blowing all the way in from the ocean. The researchers who designed the model think that the particles stay airborne for nearly a week, which is more than enough time for them to cross oceans.
These plastics that are falling from the sky like rain are smaller than 5 millimeters and come from many sources. Plastic bags and bottles that are thrown into the waterways and littered on the land break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Another source, the article noted, is your washing machine. Every time you wash synthetic clothing, tiny microfibers fall off and get flushed into the wastewater treatment plants. These facilities filter out some of the microfibers and trap them into a sludge — a mix of treated human waste that’s applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer. What happens to the remaining microfibers? Those get flushed out to the ocean along with the treated water. This, the article pointed out, has been happening for decades. Plastics disintegrate but never really disappear, and this is why the amount of microplastics in the ocean has been steadily rising.
The new research shows that there could be more microplastic blowing out of the ocean at any given time than there is going into it — that’s how full the ocean is with microplastics. The following direct quote from the article should give you nightmares.
“So much has accumulated in the ocean that the land may now be a net importer of microplastic from the sea.”
Think about this for a moment. We are filling up our oceans with so much plastic that it breaks it down and returns it to us in the form of air. As someone with asthma, this makes me want to reach for my inhaler.
The article dives into other ways these microplastics enter the atmosphere. When someone drives down the road, tiny pieces fly off the tires as part of normal wear and tear. The material is made up of rubber, added synthetic rubbers, and other chemicals. Tire particles are included in the microplastics group and they are everywhere. In 2019, a study crunched the numbers and determined that 7 trillion microplastics wash into the San Francisco Bay every year — most of it from tires.
Another key point from the article is that these plastics have saturated our environment so thoroughly to the point that they have homogenized. One of the researchers at the University of Strathclyde, Steve Allen, said it bluntly:
“There’s no borders, there’s no edges. And this is clearly showing that microplastic is going into the sea and back out of the sea. It’s raining on the land and then getting blown back up into the air again, to move somewhere else. There’s no stopping it once it’s out.”
Although Allen didn’t do the research for the model, he and his spouse, Deonie Allen, shared their thoughts in the Wired article.
Janice Brahney, the environmental scientists who co-led the PNAS paper, noted that this highlighted the role of legacy pollution. Brahney is an environmental scientist at the Utah State University.
“The amount of plastics that are in our ocean is just overwhelming compared to anything that we produce in any given year in the terrestrial environment.”
Brahney agreed with Allen’s thoughts, saying, “It could just be moving around the surface of the Earth endlessly.” Brahney added, “That’s just really horrifying to think about.”
This makes you look at clothing, microfiber towels and cloths, sanitizing wipes, all in a different light. I also notice that people litter masks all of the time — and I’m sure many of the surgical masks that we wear today are made with some type of synthetic material that could one day become millions of micro plastics stuck in someone’s lungs.
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