Even the most pristine areas around the world – US national parks, Himalayas, the Pyrenees – are covered in microplastics. A new study published in the journal Science estimates that more than 1000 metric tons of plastic particles are landing on US protected lands every year, which is equal to around 120 million plastic water bottles.
The majority of the microplastics found in the samples were microfibers, originally from textiles used for clothing, including polyester and nylon. Other materials the researchers found were fibers used for household and vehicle carpeting.
Nature lovers are also shedding plastic fibers
Some of these materials found – polypropylene (PP) and polytetrafluoroethylene (also known as Teflon) – are used in outdoor gear as well, including fleece, tents, waterproof clothing, and climbing ropes. Microfiber emissions from the national park visitors wearing and using such clothing or materials would explain the presence of these plastic materials in that area.
Microfibers are released into the environment through washing and wearing. They wash off from products such as synthetic clothes or textiles when doing the laundry – an average of 9 million microfibers are released per wash –. Only by wearing synthetic clothes and because of friction can plastic fibers be continually being released in the air.
As the researchers point out in the article published in Science, these alarming findings should emphasize the importance and urgency of reducing pollution from such materials. Our Ocean Clean Wash campaign offers solutions to consumers and companies.
Microplastics travel far before settling
Researchers highlight the need for more research about the transportation of microplastics from urban to remote areas. Their study showed that plastic travels from their source – populated regions around the world, only proving how omnipresent humans are in the atmosphere’s composition. There is a high potential for microplastics to travel for kilometers before settling down.
One of the causes for microplastics to settle in US national parks is regional storms, as found in the “wet samples” of the research in Science. Still, “dry samples” contained more than 75% of the microplastics, which suggests that even though urban areas are the source, plastics stay in the atmosphere for extended periods, traveling for long distances and deposited during favorable conditions, such as intersections with mountain ranges.
Are we breathing in microplastics?
Plastic microfibers are found in outdoor air, but they are also inside of buildings, especially in the dust on the floor. About 33% of fibers in indoor environments are plastic fibers, and research has shown that we probably ingest microplastics at a rate of 11 particles per hour.
Other studies have shown that it’s raining microplastics everywhere and every day. Big cities like London, Paris, and Dongguan in China, as well as pristine areas like the Arctic or the Swiss Alps, have high concentrations of microplastics.
Textile workers that deal with polyester and nylon materials have shown symptoms like coughing, breathlessness, and reduced lung capacity, which suggests a link between inhaling microplastics and the health problems experienced by these workers.
The latest results on this issue show that nylon fibers hinder the growth of mini lungs, while polyester fibers did not. Defense cells in the lungs (macrophages) also attacked nylon fibers when exposed to these plastic particles. These preliminary results were introduced by researcher Fransien van Dijk during the first-ever Plastic Health Summit 2019, as part of research at the University of Groningen.