Tiny particles of plastic—the equivalent of some 130 million water bottles— rain down on national parks and wilderness areas in the West each year, according to a Utah State University study published Thursday.
The microscopic pieces of nonbiodegradable plastic are transported from urban areas, and in some instances recirculated from the soil and water into the atmosphere and then washed out by rain, according to the study, which was reported in the magazine Science.
“We were honestly surprised by all that we learned,” Janice Brahney, an assistant biogeochemistry professor at Utah State University who led the research, said in an interview.
Previous research has focused on how microplastics used in face and body washes and some toothpastes get flushed down the drains and into water bodies, where they are taken up by fish and other organisms, Brahney said.
‘Ubiquitous in the Atmosphere’
The latest finding that microplastics are “ubiquitous in the atmosphere and are transported to distant locations has widespread ecological implications,” she wrote in the study.
Microplastics are resilient chemical compounds used in everyday products like polyethylene bags, jackets, face masks, shields ,and gowns such as those being worn to ward off Covid-19, but these products tend to fragment rather than degrade, which makes their uptake particularly harmful to health.
Brahney and her team set out to study dust particles in pristine ecosystems. But when they looked at the particles under a microscope, “we saw brightly colored pieces of plastic,” she said. “All the colors of a rainbow.”
The team identified microplastics and other particles that they collected between 2017 and 2019 in 11 national parks and wilderness areas in the West, including Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
1,000 Tons Per Year
The findings showed about 4% of the atmospheric particles analyzed from the remote locations were synthetic polymers. They fall in the study areas at the rate of about 1,000 tons per year.
Brahney’s study, which she called a pilot, looked at the transport and fate of microplastics through the atmosphere, but she said the size of the particles is concerning because they are small enough to accumulate in lung tissue. Her study didn’t examine the effects on living organisms or provide any recommendations for regulation.
About 30% of the particles the study found were “brightly colored microbeads,” but not those commonly associated with personal care products, these microbeads were acrylic and likely derived from industrial paints and coatings.
In 2018 the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale, manufacture, and distribution of personal care products containing plastic microbeads used in face and body washes and some toothpastes as “abrasives.”
The Environmental Protection Agency has tended to regulate plastic pollution of marine waters indirectly by encouraging states to develop plans to reduce trash that is impairing…