Global plastic production has increased by 8.3 billion metric tons during the past 70 years. The rest were either burned or discharged into the environment, with only 9% of them being recycled. Nanoplastics are extremely small particles that can potentially penetrate cells, breach the blood-brain barrier, and accumulate in organs including the testicles, liver, and brain since their sizes range from 1 to 100 nanometers (one nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter).
Similarly, microplastics (ie, materials containing particles that are less than 5 millimeters in size) have also been detected in human lungs and the lung tissue of cancer patients, indicating that the inhalation of atmospheric microplastics is an exposure risk to humans. However, given the difficulty of detecting such small particles, it is likely that researchers have been dramatically undercounting the number of airborne microplastics.
In this new study, researchers in Auckland, New Zealand, have used sophisticated chemical methods to find and analyze particles as small as 0.01 millimeters. Using this approach, the researchers calculated that 74 metric tons of microplastics are dropping out of the atmosphere and onto the city every year, the equivalent of more than three million plastic bottles falling from the sky. The average number of airborne microplastics detected in Auckland in one square meter in a single day was found to be 4,885. This compares with estimates from other, previous studies of 771 in London, 275 in Hamburg, and 110 in Paris. Given that these are all cities that have traditionally been assumed to be much higher polluters than Auckland, it is likely that we have been significantly underestimating the extent of this issue.
Whilst the waves breaking in the Hauraki Gulf may play a key role in Auckland’s problem by transmitting water-borne microplastics into the air, future work is now clearly needed at a global level to quantify exactly how much plastic we are breathing in.
Waves break against the shore,
every quiver spitting scree
into the warm
and flawless sky;
heavy mouthfuls of
We try to count the cost
with eyes too wide to see
every breath a sharp
and rancid taste
of what we failed to save.
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