The Guardian • Issue #2074


  • by Anna Pha
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2074

Anna Pha

Microplastics (particles under 5 millimetres) that come from industrial effluent, textiles, synthetic car tyres, plastic bags, PET bottles, personal care products, and elsewhere have been discovered in soils, water, crops, the ocean, and in the air we breathe. They are found in the food chain. They have been discovered in the Arctic sea ice, in the snow on the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. Recent studies have found wind-born microplastics being transported long distances through the air. Scientists are still learning of the health consequences.

Plastics, as they break down, are an environmental and health hazard to animals and humans. “A growing plastic smog, now estimated to be over 170 trillion plastic particles [is] afloat in the world oceans mostly made up of micro-plastics.” (Fight Back, CPA South Australia) Plastics contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals and toxic chemicals used in their production. These can interfere with the body’s hormones and potentially lead to brain, immune, and other health problems including cancer.

It is well known that plastics particles have entered the food chain. They have even been found in bottled and tap water and in the blood stream. Natalie Mahowald of Cornell University (New York) says that plastic particles are being kicked up so consistently, that there’s always some in the air – enough that plastic bits are now also found in human lungs. “We’re definitely breathing them right now,” says Mahowald.

Research by British scientists at Hull York Medical School found plastics in the lungs of living people. The most prevalent forms of plastic that they found were Polypropylene,used in plastic packaging and PET, which is used in disposable plastic bottles. They found the highest number of particles in the lower regions of the lungs. “We did not expect to find the highest number of particles in the lower regions of the lungs, or particles of the sizes we found,” says Laura Sadofsky, co-author of the study. “This is surprising as the airways are smaller in the lower parts of the lungs and we would have expected particles of these sizes to be filtered out or trapped before getting this deep into the lungs.”

Scientists from Waseda University in Japan climbed Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama in order to collect water from the mists that shroud the peaks. Using advanced imaging techniques they identified nine different types of polymers and one type of rubber in the airborne microplastics, which ranged in size from 7.1 to 94.6 micrometres. Each litre of cloud water tested contained between 6.7 to 13.9 pieces of the plastics!

Plastic particles are literally everywhere and in everything we eat and breath.

“If the issue of ‘plastic air pollution’ is not addressed proactively, climate change and ecological risks may become a reality, causing irreversible and serious environmental damage in the future,” lead author of the research, Hiroshi Okochi, warns. When microplastics reach the upper atmosphere and are exposed to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, they degrade, contributing to greenhouse gasses. “Microplastics may have become an essential component of clouds, contaminating nearly everything we eat and drink via ‘plastic rainfall.’ ” Also, aerosols such as plastic particles can change the climate depending on whether they absorb or reflect sunlight.

Fearing a decline in the use of oil and gas as fuels, petrochemical companies have plans to ramp up production of plastics. They own governments, including Australia’s. Political donations from fossil fuel companies should be banned along with a prohibition on government ministers and senior public servants taking up positions in those companies after leaving public office.

Meanwhile, every one of us can make a contribution by lobbying governments, and phasing out our use of single use plastics.

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