Microplastics can accumulate heavy metals like mercury and persistent organic pollutants. These materials have known health impacts.
Scientists reported that worryingly high amounts of microplastic particles are raining down on a remote area in France’s Pyrenees Mountains, according to National Geographic.
The study is the first of its kind ever conducted. Only two other studies have looked at microplastics in the air, since most scientific and media attention has been on microplastics in oceans and waterways.
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic waste which can be smaller than 25 microns in size. In comparison, a human hair is about 60 to 70 microns in diameter.
“If you go outside with a UV light, set at a wavelength of 400 nanometers, and shine it sideways you’ll see all kinds of plastic particles in the air fluoresce,” said Deonie Allen, a researcher at EcoLab in the School of Agricultural and Life Sciences in Toulouse, France. “It’s almost worse indoors. It’s all a bit terrifying.”
Allen’s team collected microplastics for five months at a meteorological station about 4,500 feet above sea level.
After studying wind patterns to find the source of the microplastics, the team did not succeed in finding an obvious source for the plastics within 60 miles of the sparsely populated region. Steve Allen, co-author of the study, said that it is still unknown how far microplastics can travel.
About 420 million tons of plastics were made in 2015. Plastic waste degrades over time to microplastic particles or even smaller nanoparticles.
The health effects of microplastic exposure are unknown, Stephanie Wright, a researcher at the Centre for Environment and Health at King’s College London in the United Kingdom, told National Geographic.
“We’ve only recently recognized human exposure to microplastics through the air,” Wright said.
All that is known is that microplastics smaller than 25 microns can enter the human body through the nose and mouth and those smaller than five microns can end up in lung tissue. “Other types of small particles do have health impacts,” Wright pointed out.
Microplastics can accumulate heavy metals like mercury and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including brominated flame retardants and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These materials have known health impacts, Wright said.
“We don’t have this sort of material in nature,” Deonie Allen said, according to NPR.
Nanoplastics are also as widespread as microplastics, but the technology to detect them doesn’t exist yet, according to Roman Lehner of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.
Nanoparticles have very different chemical and physical properties than the same substances at micro or larger sizes. Because they’re so small, nanoplastics have more atoms on the surface of a particle compared to its volume, making them more chemically reactive. This means that the potential risks to human health and the environment maybe different from microplastics, Lehner said, according to National Geographic.
Lab studies have shown that nanoplastics can cross cell wells in aquatic organisms and in samples of human intestines. This phenomenon appeared to change behavior and affected endocrine function of fish and other marine species.
“We don’t yet know all the hazards,” Lehner said. “However it is likely the environmental impacts are significant and much more research is warranted.”
The European Union has recognised that businesses have an important role to play in reducing the environmental impact of the products they place on the EU market
Manufacturers and importers of goods into the EU, including those selling direct to consumers online, are bound by obligations under REACH, the RoHS Directive for Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) and the regulation on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) to limit the amount of harmful substances that their products contain.
Market surveillance authorities are increasingly holding businesses accountable for violations of these regulations. Manufacturers and importers of goods into the EU are advised to familiarise with these and other regulations, and develop processes to ensure ongoing compliance.