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Alarming 'plastic rainfall' concerns

Are we breathing plastic? Read on to discover the alarming mobility of microplastics and their far-reaching effects. Groundbreaking research reveals shocking levels of microplastic pollution in clouds, raising concerns about 'plastic rainfall' impacting crops and water sources, as well as irreversible environmental damage.

New research has uncovered the presence of microplastics in clouds surrounding Japan's Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama, emphasising the alarming extent of plastic pollution. This discovery raises concerns about the long-distance spread of microplastics, potentially contaminating crops and water sources through "plastic rainfall". The high concentration of microplastics in the samples suggests that they might influence cloud formation, releasing greenhouse gases in the process.

The study, led by Professor Hiroshi Okochi from Waseda University, warns that if the issue of "plastic air pollution" is not proactively addressed, it could contribute to climate change and pose ecological risks, leading to irreversible environmental damage. This research, published in Environmental Chemistry Letters, is believed to be the first to examine clouds for microplastics.

Microplastics, particles smaller than five millimeters, result from the breakdown of larger plastic pieces or intentional addition in products. Tires and plastic beads in personal care items are significant sources. Recent global estimates suggest that up to 10 million tons of microplastics enter the oceans annually.

Clouds over Mount Fuji in Japan, where microplastics samples were found.

Waseda University researchers collected samples at altitudes ranging from 1,300 to 3,776 metres, including Mount Fuji in Japan (pictured), identifying nine types of polymers and one rubber type. The mist in the clouds contained 6.7 to 13.9 pieces of microplastics. Photo:

The health impacts of microplastics are still under study, but research has detected them in various human and animal organs. Exposure to microplastics has been linked to behavioural changes in mice, and other studies have suggested associations with cancer and irritable bowel syndrome.

Waseda researchers collected samples at altitudes ranging from 1,300 to 3,776 metres, identifying nine types of polymers and one rubber type. The mist in the clouds contained 6.7 to 13.9 pieces of microplastics, including a significant amount of water-attracting plastic particles. This suggests that microplastic pollution could play a crucial role in rapid cloud formation, with potential implications for overall climate dynamics.

Of particular concern is the accelerated degradation of microplastics in the upper atmosphere, releasing greenhouse gases. High concentrations of microplastics in sensitive polar regions could disrupt ecological balance.

This study underscores the mobility of microplastics, indicating their ability to travel long distances through the air and environment. Previous research has identified microplastics in rain, with potential sources including sea spray, aerosols from ocean activities, and dust from roads disturbed by vehicular traffic.

Microplastics on a beach, where the pollution is especially concentrated.

Plastic waste, accounting for approximately 80% of marine pollution, is especially concentrated near coastlines. Photo:

Meanwhile, a recent report from the Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health, funded by the NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences), emphasises the disproportionate impact of plastic pollution on vulnerable populations.

Exposure to plastic pollution is found to disproportionately affect the poor, minorities, marginalised communities, and those in the Global South. Health consequences, including disease, disability, and premature death, are higher among people of color, Indigenous populations, and children. Island nations face an additional burden due to the significant amounts of plastics washing up on their shores, affecting aesthetics, fisheries, and water quality.

Marine pollution, primarily composed of a mix of toxic metals, plastics, chemicals, and waste, poses a growing threat to the world's oceans. Plastic waste, accounting for approximately 80% of marine pollution, is especially concentrated near coastlines. Researchers estimate that 10 million metric tons of plastic waste and microplastics enter the oceans annually, with projections indicating a total of 150 million tons circulating the oceans by 2025.

Microplastics, particularly ingested through seafood consumption, pose health risks. Fishing communities and those relying heavily on a seafood diet are at greater risk. The ingestion of microplastics can lead to a range of health issues, including impacts on the colon, small intestine, cell proliferation, chronic inflammation, and immunosuppression. Microplastics may act as vectors for transporting toxic chemicals and pathogens into tissues, with potential links to various health conditions, including neurodevelopmental disorders, infertility, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancers.

The report concludes that current patterns of plastic production, use, and disposal are unsustainable, causing significant harm to human and environmental health. The Minderoo-Monaco Commission advocates for a global plastics treaty to address plastic production and pollution.

Ongoing research funded by the NIEHS focuses on the effects of plastics and tire particles on marine species, with a particular focus on oysters. Research indicates a high abundance of tire particles in microplastic debris in Charleston Harbor. Oysters, as filter feeders, accumulate tire particles at a faster rate than other microplastics, and a 44-hour depuration period is insufficient to remove microplastics from oysters.

Further research aims to broaden the understanding of microplastic impacts on various shellfish species and consider the influence of climate change on particle accumulation rates in oysters.

* I'm Not Plastic's vision is to encourage people to embrace an ethical and authentic lifestyle, in which single-use plastic and food waste are eliminated.

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