There's no escape from plastic pollution for earthlings. Researchers found microplastics, or bits of plastic waste less than 5-mm long, in the air at 2.8 km above sea level in a 'clean station' up in the French Pyrenees.
Plastics are one of the building blocks of modern human civilisation and can be found everywhere from our smartphones to medical supplies, to automobiles and more. But while plastics have enabled humans to create things that would have been unimaginable a short time ago, they also present a large waste problem when they reach the end of their life. Unlike organic products, plastics take centuries to decompose and unlike other materials like steel, they are not easy to recycle either.
Now, a recent study has found microplastics in the unlikeliest of places.
What did the study find?
Scientists from CNRS, Université Grenoble Alpes and the University of Strathclyde, Scotland tested 10,000 cubic meters of air every week between June and October of 2017. The samples of air were collected at the height of 2,877 meters above sea level at the Pic du Midi Observatory in the French Pyrenees. The observatory is known as a "clean station" as it is thought that the local environment and climate has very little to no effect on the station. Microplastics were found in all of the samples.
Also read: Explained: What are nurdles, the tiny plastic bits polluting oceans?
"Mathematical models of air mass trajectories used by the scientists indicate that the particles originated in Africa, North America, or the Atlantic Ocean, which indicates intercontinental atmospheric transport of microplastic," the researchers said in a statement.
Microplastics were found to be reaching the planetary boundary layer (PBL), according to the researchers. This allowed the small pieces of plastics to travel great distances.
"Once it hits the troposphere, it's like a superfast highway," said the study's main author Steve Allen of Dalhousie University in Canada.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are fragments of any type of plastic less than 5 mm in length, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the European Chemicals Agency. There are two types of microplastics -- primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are those which are already less than 5 mm (0.20 in) in length and secondary microplastics are those which are reduced in size due to the degradation of larger plastic pieces.
These microplastics escape into the environment through common sources like plastic nets, plastic bottles, microbeads, nurdles, microwave containers, tea bags and tire wear. It is estimated that 35 percent of all ocean plastic pollution comes from the erosion of polyester, acrylic, or nylon-based clothing, which often happens as a result of washing.
"Plastic leaving the ocean into the air that high -- it shows there is no eventual sink for this plastic. It's just moving around and around in an indefinite cycle," said Allen.
How damaging are microplastics?
The microplastics can also be eaten by wildlife without killing them immediately due to their small size. This allows the deadly plastics to bioaccumulate in animal species, which is dangerous for other species that are higher up the food chain, including humans. Every species slowly starts accumulating these nano plastics in their bodies, to toxic after-effects.
Microplastics also act as buoys for other hazardous toxins and chemicals that are polluting the environment. These chemicals can then result in various diseases and can cause cancer, liver failure and kidney failure. They can also carry deadly bacteria like E. coli and cholera if they come near contaminated water.
(Edited by : Shoma Bhattacharjee)