June 25, 2020
Pictured here, Rocky Mountain National Park,
which had the greatest amount of microplastics
among the national parks and wilderness areas
in the study.
Image via Utah State University.
microplastics are emitted
into the atmosphere...
A new study estimates that more than 1,000 tons of microplastics from the air - equivalent to more than 123 million plastic water bottles - rain down onto protected areas in the western U.S. each year.
The discovery of the microplastics was a surprise.
A research team was analyzing rainwater samples from national parks and wilderness areas across Colorado, as part of a pilot study on a new type of field equipment.
They were shocked to find that the samples contained microplastics - plastic fragments less than 5 mm (.2 inch) in length - including a rainbow of plastic fibers, as well as beads and shards.
Utah State University assistant professor Janice Brahney is lead author of the study (Plastic Rain in protected areas of the United States), published June 12, 2020, in Science.
Brahney said in a statement:
The world produced 348 million metric tons (over 7 billion pounds) of plastic in 2017, and global production shows no sign of slowing down.
In the United States, the per capita production of plastic waste is 340 grams (12 ounces) per day.
Although plastics' high resilience and longevity make them useful in everyday life, these same properties mean that they fragment into tiny particles - microplastics - rather than degrade in the environment.
These microplastics are known to accumulate in wastewaters, rivers, and ultimately the worlds' oceans - and as Brahney's team shows, they also accumulate in the atmosphere.
Microscope image of microplastics
in atmospheric particulate samples. 500 pm.
Image via Janice Brahney
Utah State University.
The researchers examined the source and life history of microplastics that were deposited via rain versus via dry air.
They found that nearby cities and population centers were the initial source of plastics in rain. In contrast, plastics from dry air showed indicators of long-range transport associated with large-scale atmospheric patterns.
The researchers say this suggests that microplastics are small enough to be carried in the atmosphere across continents.
Most of the plastics deposited in both wet and dry samples were microfibers from clothing and industrial materials.
These microbeads were acrylic and likely derived from industrial paints and coatings.
Other particles were fragments of larger pieces of plastic.
The report-study notes:
The researchers made weekly and monthly examinations of wet and dry samples from 11 sites, and estimate that more than 1,000 tons of microplastics are deposited onto protected lands in the western U.S. each year.
A staggering 4% of the atmospheric particulates that the researchers identified collected in the samples from these remote locations were plastic polymers.
The ubiquity of microplastics in the atmosphere has unknown consequences for human and animal health, but the size ranges the researchers observed were well within that which accumulate in lung tissue.