US Geological Survey researcher, Gregory Wetherbee’s was analyzing rainwater samples collected from the Rocky Mountains and shockingly found multicolored microscopic plastic fibers.
He said, “I guess I expected to see mostly soil and mineral particles” .
His discovery, published in a recent study titled “It is raining plastic”, raises questions about the amount of plastic waste permeating the air, water, and soil virtually everywhere on our planet.
Wetherbee said, “I think the most important result that we can share with the American public is that there’s more plastic out there than meets the eye. It’s in the rain, it’s in the snow. It’s a part of our environment now.”
He collected rainwater samples from across Colorado and analysis under a microscope showed a rainbow of plastic fibers, as well as beads and shards. The findings shocked Wetherbee, who had originally collected the samples to study nitrogen pollution.
“My results are purely accidental,” he claims.
Nevertheless, they are consistent with another recent study that detected microplastics in the Pyrenees, signifying that plastic particles could travel with the wind for hundreds of kilometers. Other studies with similar findings of microplastics have turned up in the deepest reaches of the ocean, in UK lakes and rivers and in US groundwater.
A major contributor is trash, according to Sherri Mason, a microplastics researcher and sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend. Over 90% of plastic waste is not recycled, and as it slowly degrades it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Mason explained that plastic particles are byproducts of a variety of industrial processes and said, “Plastic fibers also break off your clothes every time you wash them”.
Mason conceded that it’s almost impossible to trace the tiny plastic pieces back to their sources, but virtually anything made of plastic could be shedding particles into the atmosphere. She added, “And then those particles get incorporated into water droplets when it rains, then wash into rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans and filter into groundwater sources”.
Even though scientists have been analyzing plastic pollution in the ocean for over a decade until now they can only account for 1% of it. Stefan Krause at the University of Birmingham claims that researchers know even less about the amount of plastic in freshwater and in the air and added, “We haven’t really started quantifying it”.
It is also not clear whether it would be theoretically possible to flush all plastic out of the natural world, and how long that might take.
He said, “Even if we waved a magic wand and stopped using plastic, it’s unclear how long plastic would continue to circulate through our rivers waters systems. Based on what we do know about plastic found in deep sources of groundwater, and accumulated in rivers, I would guess centuries.”
Human beings and animals consume microplastics via water and food, and we probably breathe in micro- and nano plastic particles in the air, however, scientists have yet to understand the health effects. Microplastics can even attract and cling to heavy metals such as mercury and other hazardous chemicals like toxic bacteria.
Krause said, “Plastic particles from furniture and carpets could contain flame retardants that are toxic to humans”.
Mason concluded, “ Because we are all are exposed to hundreds of synthetic chemicals as soon as we’re born, it’s difficult to say how much longer we’d live if we weren’t exposed. We may never understand all the linkages between plastics and health. But we know enough to say that breathing plastic probably isn’t good, and we should start thinking about dramatically reducing our dependence on plastic”.