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Airborne Plastics: an Invisible Threat?

Microscopic plastic waste is now ubiquitous on earth. It’s found on the highest peaks of the Himalayas and at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It’s sadly no surprise that we unknowingly inhale microscopic plastics in the air we breathe, perhaps thousands of tiny particles a day, the health effects of which are only just being realised.

Exposure to these invisible nano-plastic particles by inhalation – some less than 1/100th of the width of a human hair – spreads them to every part of our bodies. Through our airways they can reach the deepest part of our lungs, pass into the bloodstream, and even be transferred to our children through the placenta and breastmilk.

Scientists are only now beginning to understand the potential extent of the harm to human health these airborne micro and nano plastics are having on us all.

A toxic cocktail

A new report by the Centre for International Environmental Law, Breathing Plastic: the Health Impacts of Invisible Plastics in the Air, has assessed the highly likely damage this toxic cocktail can have. Its authors warn of the potential to harm the reproductive, cardiovascular, immune, lymphatic, and vascular systems.

While airborne microplastics research is in its infancy, studies on the frequent inhalation of micro and nanoparticles show that they can have immediate and long-term effects such as cancer after chronic exposure. 

The ease with which the tiny particles are transported allows them to be inhaled into the lungs with immediate effects on the respiratory tract, including asthma-like reactions, bronchitis, and auto-immune diseases. From there they can enter the bloodstream to affect our internal organs as well as the brain, increasing the risk of neurological disorders such as ADHD. 

There is also the potential to harm male and female fertility, as well as leading to worse birth outcomes for new-borns. Although the full effects of long term exposure on reproductivity are not yet known, more research is being urgently carried out over the next five years.

Stopping it at source

The exponential increase in plastic production has led to a ten-fold increase in plastic waste over the last 50 years. 

 This period of increase corresponds to a rise in microplastics in atmospheric studies. Micro and nano-plastics are created either as primary by-products from the production of agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals, or from the smaller fragmentation of larger plastic particles which have been broken down. 

One study from 2020, for example, found atmospheric plastic was created after plastic in the sea is broken down and turned into a plastic sea spray.

The ultimate source, however, of atmospheric plastic pollution is undeniably the unstoppable surge in global plastic production by the petrochemical industry which has fought off global regulation with legally-binding measures.

The authors of the report warn that voluntary approaches at self-regulation of the industry have failed, as the inexorable rise of plastic production is expected to almost quadruple by 2050. 

At the heart of this is the basic freedom to have clean air. Individuals can only do so much. HEPA filters can be used to recycle the air in the home, while the minimal use of plastics in food preparation, especially heating food in plastic containers, can reduce contamination to an extent. But these are a 'temporary bandage for a systemic problem' which require legally binding measures to curb the production of plastic, the authors conclude.


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