A new study on microplastics revealed that microscopic plastic debris pollutes not just the ocean but also land and the air we breathe.

In a study conducted at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), researchers found evidence that microplastics have a substantial footprint in the Earth’s environment. Led by Robert C. Hale, professor of Marine Science in the VIMS Dept. of Environmental and Aquatic Animal Health, they discovered that the microscopic synthetic particles forming part of ordinary consumer products like facial scrubs, detergent pods, tennis balls, wet wipes, glitters, synthetic clothing and cigarette butts, just to name a few, are dispersed across land and atmospheric surfaces as well.

The minute synthetic fragments are produced and distributed whenever larger pieces of plastic debris are broken down by biological, chemical and physical forces. Scientists have long raised concerns about the impact of microplastics in marine ecosystems. Yet the new study “A Global Perspective on Microplastics” published by the VIMS researchers in Oceans 2020 of the Journal of Geophysical Research, explained why microscopic materials create problems not only in oceans.

Microplastic Characteristics

In stressing their point, the researchers gave emphasis to the fact that not all plastics are the same. That being the case, characteristics of microplastics that break down are inclined to change during, and after consumers’ use of plastic products. Senior Research Scientist Dr. Mark LaGuardia remarked that

“Once microplastics enter the environment and interact with the weather, their complexity becomes even more convoluted.” — “making it necessary for us to have a better understanding about such complexities, especially when they occur in transition zones like estuaries.”

Plastics, as the researchers have discovered, vary not only in texture, size and shape but also in chemical compositions. Adding to the complexity are the additives infused, such as UV inhibitors and flame retardants, which on their own, create health and environmental impacts.

Professor Hale recommends that in order to attain better understanding of the complex characteristics of microplastics, scientists, engineers, manufacturers, as well as as economists, policymakers and healthcare specialists must collaborate in comprehending the nature, composition and processes of plastics and their additives. That way, key questions can be resolved, particularly on how to mitigate the potential impacts of microplastics as they occur in land, water and air.

Need for Better Tools in Studying the Effects of Microplastics

In recommending further studies of how microplastics impact all areas of the environment, Professor Hale said better tools for analysis are needed. There are nanoplastics, particles even smaller than microplastics; with sizes ranging from 1 nanometer to 1,000 nanometers or a micron. Currently, most of the available technology for analysis cannot go down below 10 microns. That is notwithstanding the presumption that the more minute particles, the greater their potential to be more toxic.

In line with their goal, the VIMS researchers will embark on a study to investigate interactions between infectious diseases in fish and particles smaller than 10 microns. The NOAA Marine Debris program has provided the funding needed in undertaking the research.