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Singh writes: "Plastic was the furthest thing from Gregory Wetherbee's mind when he began analyzing rainwater samples collected from the Rocky Mountains."

Trail markers on the trail near Colorado's highest peak, Mount Elbert, in the Rocky Mountains. (photo: Alamy)
Trail markers on the trail near Colorado's highest peak, Mount Elbert, in the Rocky Mountains. (photo: Alamy)

It's Raining Plastic: Microscopic Fibers Fall From the Sky in Rocky Mountains

By Maanvi Singh, Guardian UK

13 August 19

Discovery raises new questions about the amount of plastic waste permeating the air, water, and soil virtually everywhere on Earth

lastic was the furthest thing from Gregory Wetherbee’s mind when he began analyzing rainwater samples collected from the Rocky Mountains. “I guess I expected to see mostly soil and mineral particles,” said the US Geological Survey researcher. Instead, he found multicolored microscopic plastic fibers.

The discovery, published in a recent study (pdf) titled “It is raining plastic”, raises new questions about the amount of plastic waste permeating the air, water, and soil virtually everywhere on Earth.

“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,” said Wetherbee. “It’s in the rain, it’s in the snow. It’s a part of our environment now.”

Rainwater samples collected across Colorado and analyzed under a microscope contained a rainbow of plastic fibers, as well as beads and shards. The findings shocked Wetherbee, who had been collecting the samples in order to study nitrogen pollution.

“My results are purely accidental,” he said, though they are consistent with another recent study that found microplastics in the Pyrenees, suggesting plastic particles could travel with the wind for hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers. Other studies have turned up microplastics in the deepest reaches of the ocean, in UK lakes and rivers and in US groundwater.

A major contributor is trash, said Sherri Mason, a microplastics researcher and sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend. More than 90% of plastic waste is not recycled, and as it slowly degrades it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. “Plastic fibers also break off your clothes every time you wash them,” Mason said, and plastic particles are byproducts of a variety of industrial processes.

It’s impossible to trace the tiny pieces back to their sources, Mason said, but almost anything that’s made of plastic could be shedding particles into the atmosphere. “And then those particles get incorporated into water droplets when it rains,” she added, then wash into rivers, lakes, bays and oceans and filter into groundwater sources.

Though scientists have been studying plastic pollution in the ocean for more than a decade, they can only account for 1% of it. Researchers know even less about the amount of plastic in freshwater and in the air, said Stefan Krause at the University of Birmingham. “We haven’t really started quantifying it,” he said.

Another unknown is whether it would be theoretically possible to flush all plastic out of the natural world, and how long that might take. “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,” he said. “Based on what we do know about plastic found in deep sources of groundwater, and accumulated in rivers, I would guess centuries.”

Animals and humans consume microplastics via water and food, and we likely breathe in micro- and nanoplastic particles in the air, though scientists have yet to understand the health effects. Microplastics can also attract and attach to heavy metals like mercury and other hazardous chemicals, as well as toxic bacteria. “Plastic particles from furniture and carpets could contain flame retardants that are toxic to humans,” Krause said.

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, said Mason. “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,” she said.

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+3 # Wise woman 2019-08-13 23:01
"Probably isn't good?" I'd venture to say, that babies born now and in the past couple of years will die young from some sort of plastic related disease if global warming doesn't get them first. This is what we've left them and continue to leave them every single day!!
0 # DongiC 2019-08-15 04:27
I get the feeling that humanity is edging toward extinction. Probably, the reason why divinities are approaching. They will be here soon!
+3 # DongiC 2019-08-14 03:13
Maybe, another threat to our well-being. What with global warming and species extinction, this plastic explosion may constitute a triple challenge to the good life as we know it. Perhaps, it is time for a massive re-evaluation of our capitalistic system as well as our very culture. We will do what is necessary to survive, even if it means changing basic human values. Our continued existence may well depend upon our ability to adapt, to be open to change and to be determined to do what is necessary. What an exciting time to be alive!
+3 # dotlady 2019-08-14 10:07
Actually quite a lot is known about the effect of plastic on living beings - it's a hormone-disrupt er that causes reproductive anomalies, lower sperm count, infertility and changes in behavior. The classic study of 1996 of wildlife near plastic landfills is "Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival?
by scientists Theo Colborn et al. No real mystery unless one thinks mankind is not an animal.

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