As many of our readers here know, we’re always reading new research to learn about the effects of various kinds of air pollution. One area of study that has caught our eyes recently is the growing body of research on airborne microplastics and their health effects. Here’s what you need to know about airborne microplastics and why they may represent the next front in the battle against air pollution.
What Exactly Are Microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that can be widely distributed as man-made plastic objects break down. At their smallest, microplastics can be as thin as 1/10th the width of a human hair, making them all but invisible. Owing to their small size, these plastics can be carried far away from their original sources.
Most of the attention to microplastics has been directed at their presence in the world’s oceans. Recent findings have shown that tiny plastic particles are present in the Mariana Trench and other extremely deep parts of the ocean. These findings show that microplastics can spread even where human activity is rare.
In addition to water, though, it also appears that microplastics can spread through the air. Findings in remote areas of the French Pyrenees showed considerable levels of plastic pollution, even though no local sources of plastic could account for their presence. Scientists eventually determined that airborne microplastics were the culprit, as tiny particles were being blown in from more populous regions.
How Widespread Are Airborne Microplastics?
At the moment, research into the airborne spread of microscopic plastics is at a very early stage. However, the findings in the Pyrenees were not entirely unique. Another study found similar microplastics in high-elevation areas of US National Parks. Together, these pieces of research suggest that plastics are traveling fairly far on wind currents and entering into areas that are largely uninhabited. In more populated areas where exposure to plastics is far more common, we can only assume that the problem is substantially worse.
Do Microplastics Pose a Risk to Human Health?
Because research is limited, it’s hard to say what health effects humans could face as a result of exposure to airborne microplastics. Preliminary evidence, though, suggests that exposure could result in lung lesions and respiratory swelling. As more research is conducted, it’s likely that we’ll learn more about how tiny plastics affect the human respiratory system and how they act in conjunction with other forms of air pollution.
Why Are These Plastics Such a Threat?
The biggest problem with microplastics is that they could stay in the environment for extremely long periods of time. While measures to reduce other forms of air pollution have gradually improved conditions, the plastics we produce today could stay around even after steps are taken to prevent new plastics from finding their way into the air and water.
Overall, airborne microplastics represent just one more component of air pollution that we’ve learned about in recent years. Because of their size and distribution, though, they may be one of the harder pollutants to deal with on a global level. Fortunately, particulates in the size range of microplastics can be removed by HEPA air purifiers, meaning that tools are readily available to keep homes and offices safe from this form of pollution.