From creeks to clouds: The invisible invasion of microplastics

Will Atwater - NC Health News

Judging by recent developments, microplastics have risen to the status of supervillain. Reports about these new anti-heroes read almost like celebrity sightings. The tiny particles are everywhere: in water, on land, on mountaintops, in humans and animals — and even in the clouds.

Microplastic compounds are defined as being less than 5 mm long, which is slightly larger than a sesame seed, but many microplastic particles are much smaller. These substances can last hundreds, even thousands of years in the environment. Globally, more than 430 million tons of plastic is produced annually. Some plastics break down into these microplastic particles, and a significant amount of them end up in the ocean, where marine animals swallow them and they enter the food chain, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Chatter about the need for regulations to reduce the proliferation of this problem is growing louder by the day as reports about the adverse health and environmental impacts of microplastics have started piling up.

In November, researchers published studies suggesting more potential risks of microplastic exposure for humans, including a Duke-led study that suggests links between nanoplastic particles and a brain protein that may result in increased risk for Parkinson’s disease and some forms of dementia.

“Our study suggests that the emergence of micro and nanoplastics in the environment might represent a new toxin challenge with respect to Parkinson’s disease risk and progression,” said lead researcher Andrew West, from the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke’s school of medicine. “This is especially concerning, given the predicted increase in concentrations of these contaminants in our water and food supplies.”

Previous studies have revealed that humans ingest about a credit card-size amount of microplastics weekly and suggested links between microplastic ingestion in people and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. There’s also some suggestion that microplastics alter how hormones function in the body.

Moreover, in October, the Guardian reported that Japanese researchers found microplastic particles in cloud formations around Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama. Researchers said that they found nine types of microplastics in cloud water, such as polyethylene (which composes plastic bags, food and drink containers), polypropylene (which makes up high heat tolerance plastics, cleaning products, pill bottles) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET/disposable drink bottles), among others.

The researchers said their “findings suggest that high-altitude microplastics particles influence cloud formation and, in turn, might modify the climate.”

One step forward, two steps back?

Environmentalists have sounded the alarm about the proliferation of single-use plastics for years and, to be fair, some government agencies and municipalities are making changes. In the United States, 10 states and Puerto Rico have banned single-use plastic bags.

As of June 2023, Surfrider, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that works to reduce the impact of plastic debris on beaches and oceans, “identified 491 U.S. local single-use bag ordinances.”

Additionally, the third meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) took place in Nairobi, Kenya, earlier this month to continue work toward a treaty to reduce plastic pollution. A fourth round of talks (INC-4) is scheduled to take place in 2024.

“I am encouraged by the forward motion of the negotiations towards a treaty that ends plastic pollution,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, according to a release. He noted the INC’s “determination to get to the finish line and put us on course for a world where plastic pollution is a problem of the past.”

But not all attendees were as encouraged as Andersen.

Neil Tangri is the senior research fellow at the University of California-Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy and the founder of GAIA, an environmental advocacy group working to promote zero-waste cities. Tangri was disappointed that microplastics “were hardly addressed” at INC-3, he said by email.

“There is a widespread recognition of the need to ban primary microplastics (e.g., beads in personal care products and detergents),” he said in an email to NC Health News. “This is really low-hanging fruit and beyond obvious; many jurisdictions have already done so, but we need a global ban. But some countries are arguing that plastic production is out of scope of the treaty — which would mean that we couldn’t ban particular products such as primary microplastics.”

“Of course, the vast majority of microplastics in the environment are the result of physical breakdown of plastic products — e.g., tire wear or macroplastic waste that breaks down in the marine environment. Again, if we exclude production from the scope of the treaty — meaning we can’t reformulate plastic products to minimize microplastic generation, or ban the items most likely to end up in the environment — we end up with a waste management treaty, and there is no effective waste management solution to microplastics.”

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