‘It’s raining plastic’

Loch Vale. Pic, Brendan Bombaci
US Geological survey researchers found microplastics even in the seemingly pristine Loch Vake. Pic, Brendan Bombaci, CC BY-SA 2.0

The T.C. team

So there’s a polymer rain falling on the Rockies – and it comes in many hues.

That’s what US Geological Survey researchers found, and described in a report that they blandly titled, ‘It is raining plastic.’

Researchers, Gregory Wetherbe, Austin Baldwin and James Ranville collected rain samples from six places in the Denver-Colorado urban corridor and two adjacent locations between January and August in 2017. They found plastics in 90 percent of the samples, most in the form of microscopic fibers, but also as beads and shards.

According to the report, “Fibers were present in a variety of colors; the most frequently observed color was blue followed by red>silver>purple>green> yellow>other color.” Clearly, the US Geological Survey is fastidious to a fault.

Photomicrographs of the plastics collected. in the Rockies
Photomicrographs of the plastics collected in the . The Loch Vale samples have red borders. Pic, USGS

While they found more plastic in the urban areas, they reported, “However, frequent observation of plastic fibers in washout samples from the isolated Loch Vale site in Rocky Mountain National Park (elevation 3,159 meters) suggests that wet-deposition of plastic is ubiquitous and not just an urban condition.”

While the plastic fibers were ubiquitous, the samples were too little to weigh. The report could not address the effects of the plastics on the local ecosystem.

Of course, after news of this came out, the argument has been made that most plastics come from natural material – you know, petroleum, which ultimately comes from plants and animals buried eons ago. But it may possibly be a little harder to stomach if you were drinking the water.

There is plenty of evidence that microplastics have been finding their way into the sea and collecting in animals like bivales, shrimp, worms, crabs. More importantly, perhaps, microplastics reduce photosynthesis and growth in microalgae and impact feeding in zooplankton.

Microplastics
Microplastics have been shown to damage plankton. While they have had health effects on workers in the plastic industry, it is not clear what damage may do to other humans. Pic, Oregon State University, CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s early days yet for research on the damage these microplastics can actually wreak on humans. There is good evidence that people working in the plastics industry are at a higher risk of lung damage and some cancers. While microplastics are generally inert, they can cause damage when airborne as particulate matter.

As a review in Environment Pollution stated last year, wind is estimated to transfer about 7 percent of the ocean’s contamination, and air carries plastic fragments from clothes, furniture, and materials from buildings, waste incineration and landfills, industrial and vehicular emissions, particle resuspension, synthetic particles used in soils such as polystyrene peat, sewage sludge used as fertilizer and tumble dryer exhaust. It pointed out that forensic studies retrieved synthetic fibers from outside surfaces, car seats and worn T-shirts.

“It is raining plastic,” the study stressed again in its conclusion. “Better methods for sampling, identification, and quantification of plastic deposition along with assessment of potential ecological effects are needed.”

We will certainly not dispute that.

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