Plastic was the furthest thing from Gregory Wetherbee’s mind when he began analyzing rainwater samples collected from the Rocky Mountains. “I guess I expected to see mostly soil and mineral particles,” said the US Geological Survey researcher. Instead, he found multicolored microscopic plastic fibers.
A new study entitled “It is raining plastic,” shed light on the next development of the microplastic crisis. Authored by Gregory Wetherbee, the study concluded that significant amounts of microplastic are sneaking their way into our precipitation, in addition to our air, water, and soil.
Wetherbee stumbled upon the findings – his intended subject was nitrogen pollution in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. “My results are purely accidental,” he said. The discovery of plastic fibers, beads, and slivers in his samples, though unanticipated, are not surprising, as previous studies have shown that microplastics are able to be transported through the air and travel far distances.
“I think the most important result that we can share with the American public is that there’s more plastic out there than meets the eye,” said Wetherbee. “It’s in the rain, it’s in the snow. It’s a part of our environment now.”
But wait – where does all the microplastic come from – I recycle! Well, according to Sherri Mason, a microplastics researcher and sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend, over 90% of plastic waste is not recycled, that plastic trash ends up breaking up into tiny pieces. “Plastic fibers also break off your clothes every time you wash them,” Mason said, in addition to almost every other plastic product. “And then those particles get incorporated into water droplets when it rains,” she elaborated.
While scientists have studied the effects of microplastics on animals (mostly marine), we have yet to understand the health effects on humans of so many microplastics in our environment. We do know that microplastics are able to attract and attach to heavy metals such as mercury for example, as well as toxic bacteria that are undoubtedly harmful to humans.
“We may never understand all the linkages between plastics and health. But we know enough to say that breathing plastic probably isn’t good, and we should start thinking about dramatically reducing our dependence on plastic,” said Mason.