Microplastic pollution is raining on urban dwellers, and research shows that London is still at its highest.
The health effects of breathing or consuming small plastic particles are unknown, and experts argue that urgent research is needed to assess the risks.
So far only four cities have been evaluated, but all have airborne microplastic contamination. Scientists believe that every city will be contaminated because there are sources of microplastics, such as clothing and packaging, everywhere.
Recent research shows that the entire planet appears to be contaminated with microplastic contamination. Scientists have found particles wherever they look, from the polar snow and mountain soils to many rivers and the deepest oceans. Further work suggests that particles can be blown around the world.
The level of microplastics discovered in London’s air surprised scientists. “We found a high number of microplastics, much higher than previously reported,” said Stephanie Wright of Kings College London, who led the research. “But every city in the world will be a bit similar.”
“I find this worrying – that’s why I’m working on it,” she said. “The biggest problem is that we don’t know much. I want to see if it’s safe or not. “
About 335 million tons of new plastic is produced annually and much leaks into the environment. Research published in Environment International has collected micro-plastics falling on the roof of a nine-story building in central London. This ensured that only microplastic material was collected from the atmosphere.
They were found in all eight samples, with deposition rates ranging from 575 to 1,008 pieces per square meter per day, and 15 different plastics were identified. Most microplastics were fibers made of acrylic, probably outfits. Only 8% of the microplastics were particles and were mostly polystyrene and polyethylene, which are commonly used in food packaging.
The microplastic deposition rate measured in London is 20 times higher than in Dongguan, China, seven times higher than in Paris, France, and nearly three times higher than in Hamburg, Germany. Scientists do not know the cause of the deviation, but differences in experimental methods are likely to be partly responsible.
The microplastic particles in London were between 0.02 mm and 0.5 mm. They are large enough to settle on the airways when inhaled and to swallow them in saliva. Smaller particles that can enter the lungs and blood pose the greatest potential health risk. They were seen in the samples, but their composition could not be identified using current technology.
Serious health damage caused by polluting particles emitted by transport and industry is well known. A comprehensive global review in early 2019 concluded that air pollution can damage every organ and virtually every cell in the human body.
The possible health consequences of inhaling plastic particles from the air or consuming them with food and water are not known. According to one study, people eat at least 50,000 microplastic particles per year.
Plastics can carry toxic chemicals and carry harmful microbes. So far limited research has shown that some sea creatures are harmful. The only evaluation of microplastics in human lungs, published in 1998, found that inhaled fibers were present in cancer lung samples.
“These studies, which show how much plastic is in the air, are waking up,” Steve Allen said at EcoLab’s research institute near Toulouse, France, whose work showed microplastic air pollution in remote mountainous areas. “[London Research] is a very well done study that shows an incredibly high number of airborne microplastics.
“We currently have very little knowledge of how this air pollution will affect people,” he said. “But with what we know, it’s pretty scary to think we’re breathing. We need urgent research.”
Johnny Gasperi of the University of Paris-Est said research shows widespread air contamination by microplastics. A study from London showed that microplastic deposition does not depend on the strength or direction of the wind, suggesting that the city is the most likely source.
Melanie Bergmann of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany stated that further research into the potential health effects of microplastic pollution is very important. “At the moment we do not know what proportion of inhaled microplasts actually penetrates the deep lungs,” she said.
Scientific advisors to the European Commission said in an April report: “Evidence [on environmental and health micro-plastics] gives cause for serious concern and for preventive action.”
Microplasts are also found in drinking water and no evidence of damage was found in the World Health Organization assessment in August, but further research is needed.
Reducing microplastic contamination requires a change in the use and disposal of plastics, Wright said, “You can’t clean it, so it’s stopping at source.” in the foreseeable future. “
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