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SOLUTIONS 6/26: Plastics everywhere in the warming air

By Huck Fairman

A new report published in the journal, SCIENCE, warned that microplastics are everywhere, not only in the planet’s waterbodies but in the air we breathe.

Tons of tiny plastic fragments rain down around the globe. Research has found evidence of airborne particles in Europe, China, the Arctic and the western United States. Researchers found tiny bits of plastics in 98% of the samples gathered, and those bits contributed to 4% of the dust that was analyzed.

The collected microfibers were found to be typical of manufactured textiles, carpeting, outdoor gear, and industrial coatings. The larger particles were deposited with rain and snow. The smaller ones were swept up by storms or winds and deposited widely and at great distances from their origins. Samples were found in our national parks, presumably brought by visitors.

The impacts of the spreading of these particles can have a number of effects, including “environmental disruption,” ecological damage, and human health issues. Because people are breathing in these particles, they can add to the causes of heart attacks, strokes, respiratory disease, and tissue damage. The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that “small particulate pollution” caused 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016.

While other sources of airborne pollution, such as black carbon found in soot, are more common and known to be unhealthy, researchers have found that the risks of airborne plastics are likely contributing to the pollution that poses health risks.

Obviously, outdoor environments are likely to have lower concentrations of these plastic particles, but as they can be carried widely by wind and weather, their spread will continue unless manufacturing changes are adopted.

This raises the question: What should we do with this information?

In order to reduce the amount of plastic particles in our air, and because they are produced globally and are carried globally, worldwide coordination of efforts to address this threat, as the world did with The Montreal Protocol to preserve the planet’s ozone layer, will be essential. And for that coordination to be realized, nations and international organizations will need educated and perceptive leadership – something not always in evidence here and around the world.

This international coordination will also be necessary to deal with the climate crisis, with its warming temperatures and other changes.

This last month of May tied for the hottest on record. Meteorologists at NOAA predict we, in the eastern United States and elsewhere, will experience a blistering summer, from July into September. Climatologist point to evidence that 2020 will be one of the hottest years on record. (2016 is the current record-holder.)

But this increasing heat is not new. Each decade since the 1960s has been warmer than the preceding one, and the five hottest years on record all occurred in the second half of the last decade. This is presenting us with serious situations, among them drought conditions, which nearly a quarter of the country will experience. This global warming, as many now know, is driven by human activity, just as the omnipresence of plastics in water and air is.

July is usually the warmest month of the year. But the five hottest Julys have occurred in the last five years, and 9 out of the 10 hottest Julys have occurred since 2005.

The heat is lingering through our nights, instead of significantly cooling off. In fact our nights are warming faster than our days, as the more frequent nighttime cloud cover holds in the day’s heat.

Much of the world faces increasing heat, with all of its repercussions, but also pervasive plastics which threaten species and human health.

Perhaps more than ever, humans and our environments need informed and capable leadership, in a time when autocrats seem interested primarily in their own power and survival. This is not a healthy situation, and it calls for significant change, as do the issues of equality and governance. Will people come together enough to adequately address these challenges?

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