The term “microplastics” refers to the tiny plastic particles that have become rampant in our environment in recent decades. Microplastics damage the ecosystems that sustain us and impact our ability to breathe clean air – and disturbingly, recent research has revealed their presence in some unexpected places, raising concerns about their long-term effects on our health and habitat. Here, we place microplastics under the microscope to take a closer look at the hidden dangers of this unseen assailant and explore why urgent action is needed.
Where are microplastics found in our atmosphere?
In the air
Recent studies show that these particles are heavily present in the air we breathe, with research suggesting that we inhale as many as 11.3 microplastics per hour. Current explorations into how human health is impacted by inhaling microplastics in the air is adding a new dimension to our understanding of the effects of microplastic exposure, with preliminary research suggesting that they may contribute to lung inflammation, shortness of breath and an increased risk of lung cancer.
In the clouds
Researchers have detected microplastics in the clouds above Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama, highlighting their remarkable potential for long-distance mobility and broad distribution. These microplastics contribute to the phenomenon of “plastic rainfall”, and they may even influence cloud formation and the release of greenhouse gases. The presence of microplastics in clouds underscores their extensive reach and the risks they may pose to our planet’s sensitive ecosystems.
Where do airborne microplastics come from?
Airborne microplastics (AMPs) that originate indoors primarily come from synthetic fibers used for clothing and textiles, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, which release microplastics into the air during usage, laundering and heat exposure. Plastic-based furnishings, paints and coatings also contribute to indoor AMPs, as do PET fibers from bottles, bags, carpets and other materials.
Other factors influencing the levels of airborne microplastic pollution in indoor environments include building design, household decorations, lifestyle choices and daily activities. However, it should be noted that the research into indoor AMPs is still in its infancy, meaning further study is needed to truly understand their sources and impacts.
AMPs in outdoor urban environments arise from a diverse range of sources, from traffic, agricultural activities, industrial emissions and construction materials to textiles, litter, indoor contamination and marine microplastics. Traffic emissions are particularly troublesome, with substantial levels of AMPs generated through wear to tire, brake, and road surfaces.
However, these emissions vary based on tire characteristics, vehicle type, driving habits and road surface quality, with other relevant factors including traffic density, speed and climate-related stresses. While it’s abundantly clear that traffic-related AMPs are a major cause for concern, further research will give us a more comprehensive understanding of their distribution and health impacts.
What is the impact of microplastics in the air?
Effects on human health
Humans and animals can take tiny, dangerous microplastic particles in through various routes including inhalation and ingestion. Research has uncovered microplastics in human lungs, brains, hearts, blood, placentas and feces, although the full extent of their health implications is still under investigation. Studies conducted on mice exposed to microplastics suggest a number of potential health concerns, including behavioral changes and links to cancer and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Microplastics don’t only create health concerns for individual organisms; in fact, they could give rise to a large-scale environmental crisis with implications for climate change and ecological balance. The mobility of microplastics in the environment means that as well as polluting the air we breathe, they also contaminate the food chain, endangering wildlife and broader ecosystems alike. Meanwhile, high concentrations of microplastics could disrupt the ecological equilibrium in sensitive polar regions, jeopardizing the future of life on our planet.
How can we protect ourselves from AMPs?
With our awareness of the dangers of airborne microplastics growing, it would be unwise not to consider protective measures that can help us to breathe clean air again. While avoiding exposure completely would be extremely challenging due to the size and prevalence of these problematic particles, there are some steps you can take:
- Use air purifiers: High-quality air purifiers with HEPA filters, including wearable air purifiers like Respiray’s Wear A+, can help reduce the concentration of airborne microplastics in indoor environments.
- Wear protective masks: When in areas with a higher risk of exposure, wearing a mask can provide an additional layer of protection against airborne particles.
- Reduce plastic use: Minimizing reliance on single-use plastics and supporting eco-friendly products contributes to a reduction of microplastics in the air.
- Advocate for change: Raising awareness about the issues and supporting policies that aim to reduce plastic pollution at its source can also help.
Incorporating these protective measures into your daily life can help mitigate the risks presented by airborne microplastics and contribute to a healthier environment for all.
Taking microplastics seriously: All of us can make a difference
They may be invisible to the human eye, but the issues microplastics create are macro in scale. These tiny particles have stealthily infiltrated our environment, endangering the air we breathe and the ecosystems we depend on. Their subtle but significant threat to our planet’s health cannot be ignored for much longer, so it’s essential that we recognize their presence and come together to take action. Every individual’s choices are important, and each of us can contribute to a cleaner and healthier planet by raising awareness and making conscious choices to reduce plastic pollution.