Airborne Plastic Particles: The Unseen Enemy Ravaging the West’s Protected Lands
Hundreds of millions of plastic bottles’ worth of particles fall each year.
National parks and wildernesses are the most protected wildlands in the United States. And yet, these areas are suffering from an immense influx of plastic pollution—just not in the form of the all-too-familiar imagery of landfills, plastic bottles, or bags littered across once-pristine landscapes.
Unseen to the naked eye, microscopic airborne plastics fill the atmosphere around park lands, raining down on untouched ecosystems to be inhaled by unsuspecting wildlife and park visitors alike.
In the West alone over 1,000 metric tons of the plastic particles fall per year throughout protected lands, according to a recently-published study in the journal Science. In those select areas, the quantity of polluted air particles amounts to the equivalent of hundreds of millions of plastic bottles.
A total of 339 samples from 11 different wilderness and national park lands were collected by the study’s authors. Of those, 98 percent contained plastic particles, a result the study’s lead author and Utah State University scientist, Dr. Janice Brahney, characterized as “very surprising” in a conversation with the New York Times.
Brahney’s team retested samples numerous times to ensure accuracy, with each round yielding the same result.
“There’s no nook or cranny on the surface of the earth that won’t have microplastics,” Brahney told the Times.
“It’s really unnerving to think about it.”
Atmospheric samples were taken during various weather conditions, meanwhile, which showed the greatest invasion of air particles to occur during rain and snow.
In most cases, such particles originated through industrial activities in nearby cities before storm fronts deposited them into the parks.
The authors found Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, to contain the greatest concentration of airborne plastics, with cities like Denver and Fort Collins, both less than 70 miles away, serving as primary culprits.
“Atmospheric transport means our wilderness areas—and thus our safety net of ecosystems, insects, and animals not affected by farming—are not safe,” Steve Allen, a researcher at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde, told the Washington Post following the study’s publication.
“The effects of microplastic on these areas is still being researched, but it is known that even the physical act of eating it can block the digestive tract of small creatures like worms. That is not even counting the mutagenic, carcinogenic, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals that plastic carries.”
Airborne plastics could also pose significant risks to the human respiratory system, Brahney told the Times.
The World Health Organization in 2016 recorded an estimated “4.2 million premature deaths worldwide” as a result of ambient, or outdoor, air pollution.
Of note, however, is that 91 percent “of those premature deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries,” with the greatest occurrence rate in the Western Pacific, according to WHO.
While concerning, airborne plastic particles are still limited to “trace amounts in comparison to other prominent particles” historically detrimental to clean air, Stephanie Wright, a King’s College London research fellow, told the Times.
“Until we have a robust understanding of our exposure, it’s difficult to infer health effects.”
The environmental detriments of airborne plastics, as well as actions required to stem the problem, may not yet be fully grasped, but the study’s authors believe consequences “are inescapable in the immediate future.”
“Eleven billion metric tons of plastic are projected to accumulate in the environment by 2025,” the study’s authors wrote.
“These findings should underline the importance of reducing pollution from such materials.”