By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Over the last couple of years, news accounts have highlighted the ubiquity of microplastics in environments previously regarded as pristine.
Despite evidence that microplastics are everywhere, there’s a lack of scientific consensus so far on the impact this pollution has on human health. Note that this is not because microsplatics are harmless, but rather, that the study of how they affect human health is in its infancy.
This week, a study published in Environment International, Atmospheric microplastic deposition in an urban environment and an evaluation of transport, reported the highest ever concentrations of such pollution yet recorded in samples taken from a London rooftop – awarding London the dubious accolade of worst microplastics contamination ever.
The London samples showed a rate of microplastics deposition twenty times higher than that of Dongguan, China; seven times higher than that of Paris, France; and nearly three times higher than Hamburg, Germany.
As the Guardian reports in Revealed: microplastic pollution is raining down on city dwellers:
The level of microplastic discovered in the London air surprised scientists. “We found a high abundance of microplastics, much higher than what has previously been reported,” said Stephanie Wrightfrom Kings College London, who led the research. “But any city around the world is going to be somewhat similar.”
“I find it of concern – that is why I am working on it,” she said. “The biggest concern is we don’t really know much at all. I want to find out if it is safe or not.”
These findings ceem to contradict the conventional wisdom that such pollution is less in cities such as London, which exercise some degree of environmental regulation, compared to more widely known polluted environments, such as Asian countries with high pollution density: e.g,, China, India, Indonesia, to name just some examples.
Now, it may be the case that London’s sad standing as the city most polluted by microplastics may be due to better sampling of London pollution, compared to the three other Chinese, French, and German cities examined in this recent study.
I’m not particularly concerned about which city shows the worst microplastics contamination. What we can say is that this pollution is more widespread than was realized even recently.
What Does This Mean?
Well, the dearth of solid scientific studies means we don’t really know. Over to the Guardian again:
But the potential health impacts of inhaling plastic particles from the air, or consuming them via food and water, are unknown. People eat at least 50,000 microplastic particles per year, according to one study.
Don’t know how you see it, the sheer volume of unwitting ingestion of these particles doesn’t look good to me.
And more generally, as to that science, as Phys. org notes in Small microplastics no longer slip through the cracks with novel method for detection:
There is a raising concern about the ecological impact, especially that caused by the smallest variety of these plastic microparticles, as these have a larger surface-to-size ratio, potentially enhancing the adsorption of contaminants, and show an increased bioavailability due to their capability to cross biological barriers, penetrate tissues and accumulate in organs. As a result, MPs may exert severe adverse effects in different environmental compartments and on human health, aggravated by the fact that degradation of larger particles into smaller ones leads to many more particles being present—the volume of one particle with a diameter of 1 mm equals that of 1,000,000,000 particles with a diameter of 1 µm. Up to date, however, there is no “universal” straightforward technique that provides a full characterization of MPs. In fact, many monitoring programs provide data on the larger MPs only, such that most probably only the tip of the “microplastic iceberg” is seen.
Victorian literature – Dickens et al – well attests to London’s filthiness. And her infamous fogs – a mainstay of cinema – are due at least as much to the burning of coal as to the city’s weather. As just one notorious recent example, in 1952, a five day clot of fog and pollution caused 12,00 people to choke to death, as the Verge reports in In 1952 London, 12,000 people died from smog — here’s why that matters now. So I guess we should not be surprised by what this study reports about microplastics pollution.
As the Verge indicates in Clothing could be to blame for the number of microplastics in our air, most microplastics pollution may arise from the widespead use of artificial fibers -something I warrant that very few people consider as a downside to purchasing clothes fashioned from artificial fiibers:
It’s too early for scientists to say definitively what the main source of airborne microplastics is. According to previous research, though, clothes made of synthetic fibers—such as acrylic and polyester—shed large amounts of microplastics when washed. A 2016 study from Plymouth University found that for each wash load of 6 kg (about 13 lbs), the acrylic sweaters the researchers washed shed more than 700,000 fibers, and the polyester garments shed almost 500,000. Such fibers are tiny, but they can add up over time as they enter the air and water.
The problem isn’t likely to reverse course soon. Since chemical company DuPont introduced nylon in 1938 and later began producing polyester textiles, synthetics have steadily taken over our wardrobes. Today they account for the majority of the world’s fiber production, a share that will likely only grow. To garment manufacturers, they can be far cheaper to use than natural fibers like silk, while delivering an attractive range of properties, like the ability to stretch or wick sweat.
And, the state of the science is at the moment too weak to offer up this explanation as no more than a hypothesis.
Meanwhile before we have scientific consensus, it seems to me that we need to reduce our reliance on plastics, and on synthetic fibers. These two steps would mitigate some significant portion of the microplastics problem, going forward. We must also then figure out how to clean up the microplastics mess we have already made.1-s2.0-S0160412019330351-main