Scientists are making startling discoveries around the world: rain is falling with significant amounts of plastic, and people are breathing in, eating, and drinking the plastic that falls.
USGS conducted a study sampling precipitation throughout Colorado. After sampling rainfall at a variety of sites in the state, plastics were identified in more than 90% of the samples. The plastic materials were mostly fibers that were only visible with 20-40x magnification. Fibers were present in a variety of colors; the most frequently observed color was blue followed by red, silver, purple, green, yellow, and assorted other colors. Plastic particles such as beads and shards were also observed with magnification. More plastic fibers were observed in samples from urban sites than from remote, mountainous
USGS Scientist Gregory Wetherbee worked on the study. “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.”
Scientists at Kings College in the United Kingdom just verified the same is true elsewhere in the world, with precipitation studies in London, England, Hamburg, Germany, Paris, France, and Dongguan, China. After 8 sites were sampled in this new study, London earned bragging rights of having the most plastic in the air. The study identified 15 different types of microplastics; based on the study, roughly 575-1,008 pieces of plastic fell from the sky per square meter per day.
Beyond falling with precipitation, it appears the wind is carrying these plastics across far distances. A study from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute found that microplastics have drifted in the air as far as the Arctic, accumulating in ice there.
Another, from the United Nations (UN), investigated the potential health impacts of microplastics. The World Health Organization (WHO) of the UN, wrote in their analysis that such microplastics have been found throughout marine environments, fresh and waste water, air, and in different kinds of water: bottled and tap.
“Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO’s Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health. “We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere – including in our drinking-water.”
For now, it appears most particles harmlessly pass through the body. However, some particles could potentially be absorbed into organs, creating health concerns. The WHO study also suggested that microplastics have the potential to both carry disease-causing bacteria and help bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, adding to health concerns.
It appears a lot of the microplastics that are raining from the sky are originally from drinking water bottles. “In drinking water in general, often the two polymers that were most frequently detected were polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene,” Dr. Neria said. “Now these polymers – the polyethylene terephthalate – is often used in producing bottled water bottles, and polypropylene, is often used in producing caps. However, there were other polymers detected as well, so more studies are needed to really make a firm conclusion about where the sources are coming from.”