Story at a glance:

  • About 85 percent of the microplastics found in the air were linked to roads.
    • About 10 percent of the airborne plastics come from the oceans, and soils make up 5 percent.
    • Breathing in plastics may affect your health.

Tiny particles of plastic are floating in the air and may pose a health risk as they travel inside human bodies, scientists warn.

Researchers said because of human pollution there is a global plastic cycle similar to the natural carbon cycle. Plastic moves through the atmosphere, oceans and land. 

Airborne microplastics have been far less studied than plastic in oceans and rivers, according to research published in the National Academy of Sciences.

Plastic in the ocean gets broken down into tiny particles, some of which end up in the atmosphere, where it can get deposited on the land.


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Cornell University professor, and part of the research team on plastic, Natalie Mahowald, told The Guardian that biodegradable plastics are part of the solution.

“We thought population centres would be a much better source, obviously, but it just didn’t work out that way,” Mahowald told the paper. “Resuspension [of microplastics] makes the most sense with this set of data.” 

In other words, the team found that most of the plastic in the air didn’t come from waste from cities and towns, but rather was blown off the land or water, where it was already in place.

In the Western U.S., where the team sampled data, about 85 percent of the microplastics found in the air were linked to roads, including particles from tires, vehicle brake pads, and litter on the ground.

About 10 percent of the airborne plastics found came from the oceans, and soils make up 5 percent.

On a global scale, the group’s modeling suggested roads dominate plastic particles in Europe, South America and Australia, while plastic blown off fields may be a bigger concern in Africa and Asia.

The smaller microplastics, the more likely they can survive for a week in the atmosphere and the easier they are to be blown across continents far away. Plastic pollution is present in Antarctica.

“People should be concerned about airborne microplastics. Firstly, because they will inhale it and it is very likely that this will have some health impacts,” Andreas Stoh, of the University of Vienna’s Faculty of Earth Sciences, told The Guardian. "And secondly, because the atmosphere is a great distributor."

Stoh, who was not part of the study, said, "It transports plastic particles to regions where we definitely don’t want to have them: agricultural fields, national parks, oceans, the Arctic, even Antarctica. Eventually, we will have extremely high concentrations of plastics everywhere.”


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Published on Apr 13, 2021