Earth Notes: Plastic Rain

Sep 2, 2020

Most people are now highly aware of the enormous quantities of disintegrating plastics accumulating in lakes, rivers, and oceans all over the planet. But those unnatural materials aren’t only found in water.  

Blue microplastics among grains of sand

Tiny bits of plastic are in the air too. That’s the conclusion of a recent study that discovered more than a thousand tons of microplastics were carried in the atmosphere into some of the most remote places in the country.  

Airborne microplastics have been detected around the globe. But Utah State University scientists who did the latest research were surprised to find them in almost all of nearly 350 samples taken from eleven wilderness areas national parks in the West—including Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Canyonlands on the Colorado Plateau.

Lead researcher Janice Brahney <pron: brainy> says the minute plastic particles are deposited in both dry and wet forms--in dust and in rain. And they can come from near and far. Dry airborne particles can travel especially long distances, from the ocean and other continents, and they fall out at higher elevations.     

Besides how far the microplastics travel, the researchers also wanted to learn the source of the plastics. Examining the samples under a microscope, they learned that many of the particles—some as small as blood cells or human hair—came originally from textiles and common plastics.

The research results raise questions about the effects of airborne microplastics on ecosystems and human health. Janice Brahney says it reinforces the need to look hard at single-use plastics—either avoiding their use, or better disposing of them so they’re not carried on the wind.