Microplastics away in the wind, contaminated even the air

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Research published on 4/15/19 in ‘Nature Geoscience‘ shows how microplastics are carried by the wind over long distances to areas far from manufacturing facilities and population centers. The surveys were carried out in an isolated area on the French side of the Pyrenees massif.

Plastics and microplastics, water and soil contamination

Mountains of plastic are abandoned every day on land and in water, in every corner of the planet. Islands of plastic materials form in the seas, galaxies of their particles and chemical additives are spread throughout the biosphere. The scientific community has defined microplastics (MP) as all particles smaller than 5 mm in diameter, nanoplastics (NP) as those smaller than 0.1 μm (100 nm).

Microplastics – also derived from the degradation of macroplastics and textile fibers (secondary MPs), reached the seas and oceans predominantly through river transport. (1) And they migrate-along with the physical-chemical and microbiological contaminants for which they act as collectors-into the ‘platysphere.’ Wastewater treatment plants, in turn, are unable to filter MPs. Which are thus also transferred to soils through irrigation water and sludge used in fertilizer production.

The persistence of the particles allowed their accumulation in aquatic ecosystems to be detected at continuously increasing levels. However, the attention of research institutions to this pollution factor is still low. Therefore, information on the presence of microplastics in the atmosphere, for example, is lacking. With the exception of only studies conducted so far in two megacities, Paris (France) and Dongguan (China), whose urban and suburban areas each exceed 10 million inhabitants. (2) Thus, the research under review is novel in nature and opens new perspectives on areas of research that need to be developed to measure the actual impact of the plastic cycle on the biosphere.

Microplastics and air pollution

Researchers from CNRS(Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, F), Universities of Toulouse and Orleans (F), and Strathclyde (Scotland, UK) performed measurements at the Bernadouze weather station (Ariège, Occitanie, F). At 1,500 meters above sea level, over 5 km from the nearest village and about 120 km from Toulouse, the only major city in the region. Samples were taken daily for a period of five months during the winter of 2017-2018. (3)


Our main discovery
is that microplastics are transported into the atmosphere and deposited in an isolated high mountain area, far from any large city or local source of pollution. This allows us to qualify microplastics as a
air pollutant
‘ (Deonie Allen, research coauthor)

Analysis shows atmospheric concentrations of fibers (<750 μm) and fragments (≤ 300 μm) identified as microplastics. In quantities comparable to those found in Paris, with an average daily count of 249 fragments, 73 films and 44 fibers per square meter. An analysis of the air mass trajectory shows microplastic transport through the wind for about 95 km. And yet, given the state of the site, it is not possible to indicate the total distance actually traveled by the identified MPs. (4)

Microplastics and us

The research under review traced most of the micro-particles detected in the atmosphere to the ‘families’ of polystyrene (41 percent of the samples), polyethylene (32 percent) and polypropylene (18 percent). Materials derived mostly from single-use plastic items, packaging, plastic bags, and textiles. And it is good to remember that nanoplastics can be easily absorbed also from our tissues, organs and cells.


This study
It shoves our responsibilities in our faces. For fifty years of heavy use of plastic objects. And also for the synthetic fiber clothes and fabrics that we have all been wearing for thirty to forty years‘ (Johnny Gasperi, Lecturer at the Water, Environment and Urban Systems Laboratory, University of Paris-Est-Créteil).




The SUP directive




(




Single-Use Plastics Directive




) has recently introduced limits

, prescriptions, and prohibitions of use on certain single-use plastic items. With yet another political compromise which certainly did not disappoint the industry. A blow to the circle and a blow to the barrel, in plastic of course.




Plastic cups




disposables have been excluded from the bans (which apply only to those made of expanded polystyrene, now used in




fast-food restaurants


to keep drinks hot). And they remain at the top of the list of the dumbest single-use plastic objects. Public health issues

and for the environment, they can be replaced very easily(thanks to glass



and rather also cardboard).




It is up to us




now take responsibility for our actions and




REDUCE


to an absolute minimum the purchase and use of plastic materials (disposable and non-disposable), whenever an alternative exists. Returning to glass syringes is unrealistic; rejecting plastic cups and bottles in public establishments is a must. Until they disappear through disuse. Choosing and demanding garments and fabrics ‘100% natural fibers‘ (e.g., wool, cotton, hemp, linen) a second action, among the many examples of our everyday life that needs to change. Urgent pressure from below for only the consumAtors, more than the penny-pinching politicians, can really force a turnaround in the market and society.

Dario Dongo

Notes

(1) Textile fibers are estimated to account for 16 percent of the world’s plastics production. ‘Degradation of these fibers produces fibrous microplastics (MP). Such MPs have been observed in atmospheric precipitation, as well as in indoor and outdoor environments. Some fibrous MPs may be inhaled. Of these, (…) some may persist in the lung causing localized biological responses, including inflammation

.’ Cf. Johnny Gasperi, Bruno Tassin. (2018). ‘




Microplastics in air: Are we breathing it in?




‘ Current Opinion on Environmental Science & Health 1, 1-5, 2018.




https://doi.org/10.1016/j.coesh.2017.10.002


(2) ‘Concentrations of microplastics and nonfibrous fibers ranged from 175 to 313 particles/m2/day in atmospheric precipitation. Therefore, dust emission and deposition between the atmosphere, land surface and aquatic environment have been associated with the transport of microplastics.

‘ See Liqi Cai, Jundong Wang, Jinping Peng et al. (2017). ‘




Characteristic of microplastics in the atmospheric fallout from Dongguan city, China: preliminary research and first evidence


‘. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2017) 24: 24928. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-017-0116-x

(3) A previous study demonstrated the ability of mineral particles of similar size to microplastics (450 μm) to travel distances of up to 3,500 km.

See Michèlle van der Does, Peter Knippertz et al. (2018). ‘The mysterious long-range transport of giant mineral dust particles’. Science Advances. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aau2768



(4) Steve Allen, Deonnie Allen et al. (2019). ‘




Atmospheric transport and deposition of microplastics in a remote mountain catchment.


‘. Nature Geoscience. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0335-5

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.