How do microplastics get in the air?
Microplastics are tiny, nearly invisible plastic particles that have seeped into our global ecosystem.
And while you may have heard about the damage that microplastics have caused to the oceans, experts are starting to find pieces of plastic in air pollution, too. In fact, you may be inhaling up to 16.2 plastic bits from your own clothes and plastic debris every hour. That can add up to breathing in the equivalent of an entire credit card every week!
According to a new 2019 study by a research team in Denmark, microplastics are present everywhere – including the air. This new information could change how we think about microplastics and their impact on our environment.
So let’s focus on how microplastics affect air pollution – we’ll cover:
- where microplastics come from
- how microplastics get into the air you breathe
- what effects microplastics have on your body when they’re inhaled
- what you can do to protect yourself from inhaling microplastics
- how to reduce the amount that gets into the air in the first place
What exactly are microplastics?
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), microplastics are chunks of plastic pollution that measure less than five millimeters (mm) across.
NOAA researchers have found microplastics in both the air and water, including:
- drinking water
- oceans (including the deep sea)
This is because microplastics are small enough to get transferred from water to air and back again in the evaporation and precipitation parts of the water cycle.
Microplastics are also produced as a byproduct of sewage treatment. This can send wastewater containing microplastics into the ocean, where microplastics then evaporate into the atmosphere in huge volumes. These microplastics can originate from a huge number of possible sources, including:
- synthetic materials washed off clothes during laundry cycles, such as polyester and polypropylene
- abrasions to vehicle tires or brake components during transport on the road that cause tiny tire shreds or brake wear particles to fly off
- abrasions to everyday plastic or synthetic objects, like the soles of shoes and cooking utensils
- runoff from plastic components used to develop and mark roads
- coatings used on marine equipment and infrastructure, such as container ships
- plastic components used in personal care products, such as plastic microdermabrasion beads in face wash
- plastic pellets used in manufacturing
Are microplastics bad for you?
Many microplastics are small enough to be inhaled straight into your lungs.
Like other foreign objects, microplastics can be harmful when they get into your airways. They can cause swelling and damage to your windpipe and to the tissue of your lungs, making you feel mild chest pain or shortness of breath.
Some of the smallest microplastics can even get into your bloodstream.
Over time, microplastics can build up and damage the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs. This can increase your risk of developing lung conditions like emphysema and lung cancer.
A 2020 review article in Science of the Total Environment found that one of the most common microplastics, synthetic fibers used in textile manufacturing, range in size from 1-5 microns.This is small enough to enter your respiratory system and pass through the lungs into the bloodstream.
Combined with arterial plaque and other pollutant particles like PM2.5 building up in your bloodstream, microplastics can contribute to hardening of your arteries (atherosclerosis) and blockages that lead to coronary artery disease and heart attacks.
Many airborne microplastics also carry other dangerous pollutants on their surface.
In big cities with the highest concentrations of microplastics, many of these particles adsorb pollutants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that originate from:
- production of chemicals
- smoking cigarettes
- burning fuel in cars or factories
Inhaling pollutant-covered microplastics has also been linked to other human health effects, such as:
- eye irritation
- trouble breathing
- feeling disoriented
- kidney and liver damage
- cancer of the skin, lungs, bladder, liver, or stomach
How do microplastics get into the air?
Although some microplastics get into the atmosphere when water containing microplastics evaporates, that’s not the only source.
Microplastics can also get into the air when any plastic object gets damaged, scraped, abraded, and so on.
Here are a couple of examples to illustrate:
- When you drive a car, your tires are slowly wearing down due to friction and heat. This is because millions of tiny microscopic pieces of rubber and plastic used to make tires fly off the tire and into the air.
- Many pieces of clothing made of polyester contain tiny plastic components that are added during production. When you rub the surface of polyester clothing, thousands of tiny fibers are released into the air (think of when you itch your skin and tons of skin cells flake off into the air).
In both cases, microplastics can become airborne and be breathed in by anyone who happens to take a breath of air containing those microplastics.
Once they become airborne, microplastics can also travel for thousands of miles through the planet’s atmosphere. A 2020 study in Nature Communications found that a combined 3,082 kilotonnes of tire shreds and brake wear particles contributed significantly microplastics in global air pollution.
Microplastics can travel on wind and weather patterns from North America, Europe, and Asia as far away as the North Atlantic and the Arctic, especially during winter and spring.
Estimating a lifespan of about 28 days for PM2.5-sized tire shred particles in particular, the study suggests that microplastics can travel on wind and weather patterns from emission sources in North America, Europe, and Asia as far away as the North Atlantic and the Arctic, especially during the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) in winter and spring.
What does the research say?
The study by that research team in Denmark we mentioned earlier, published in 2019 in Scientific Reports, illustrates this idea well.
The researchers built a mannequin (like the kind you see in clothing stores modeling clothes) that was designed to mimic a human body, complete with a breathing system made of glass and aluminum to accurately show how microplastics affect the human respiratory tract. (They even created a heating system so that the mannequin had the same 98.6°F body temperatures as a real human!)
Then, they set the breathing mannequin to inhale indoor air at three different apartments in the city of Aarhus, Denmark, each for 24 hours straight. Here’s what they found:
- up to 4 percent of the total air volume of each apartment over 24 hours was contaminated with airborne microplastics – meaning that you’d inhale at least some microplastics with every breath in one of these environments
- the amount of microplastics in the air could vary widely between different areas in the same environment – one part of the environment could hold air containing up to a 77 percent concentration of microplastics, while other areas may have as low as a 24 percent concentration
- the vast majority of airborne microplastics came from synthetic polymers common in clothing, manufactured furniture, and plastic goods
- most airborne microplastics were much smaller than other airborne pollutants like skin flakes, making them more likely to get into your airways
Microplastics may be present in 4-77% of the air you breathe on a regular basis.
Many other studies have corroborated these findings.
A 2020 study in Environment International from a research team in London, England found 575 to 1008 microplastics per square meter of air in every air sample collected from the top of a 9-story building twice a week for a month.
A 2019 study in Science Advances found high levels of microplastics, especially varnish particles and nitrile rubber shreds, in snowfall around the world as far as the Alps and the Arctic. Even locations as remote as Greenland and Svalbard (a tiny, isolated island close to the Arctic in Norway) contained as much as 1,760 microplastics per liter of air. This further illustrates that microplastics can travel throughout the upper atmosphere and get deposited anywhere in the world.
And another 2019 study from researchers at the Université Paris-Est found that plastic fibers – the most common source of airborne microplastics – make up 60 billion kilograms of the world’s plastic production. These microplastics can also carry other air pollutants, such as chemicals, on their surfaces resulting in widespread health effects like lung inflammation as well as increasing risk of infertility and cancer.
How can I protect myself from microplastics air pollution?
Microplastics are becoming a significant air quality problem across the world.
A 2020 review article in Earth-Science Reviews found that microplastics in air pollution may be the biggest contributor to microplastics pollution around the world, especially in remote regions like the Arctic and in most of the planet’s oceans. But there’s plenty you can do to start protecting yourself from the health impacts of microplastics pollution and reducing microplastics produced by your lifestyle.
Buy everyday objects that are compostable or biodegradable
Plastic objects are made of synthetic components that can take thousands of years to fully break down.
Products that are labeled as compostable can be broken down in the soil, and products that are biodegradable can be consumed by microorganisms and contribute more sustainably to the ecosystem.
Look for a label that indicates that the product is compostable – almost everything you could think of buying has a biodegradable or compostable alternatives.
A 2009 study looked into the best alternatives to plastic and suggested the following materials that break down the fastest:
- starch-based polymers
- plant-based silvergrass
- wood fiber
- coconut fiber
But while it’s good to minimize single-use plastic products like sealed bags and grocery bags, some substitutes can do more harm than good, such as:
- “biodegradable” single-use plastic water bottles or plastic bags: this type of plastic can still take many years to biodegrade and introduce harmful chemicals into the environment
- bamboo-based products like straws or silverware: bamboo sources may not be sustainable if scaled up for mass consumption and could threaten bamboo forest ecosystems
- clothes or shoes made of “recovered” plastic: re-used plastic still keeps plastic in the manufacturing and consumption cycle, leading to further environmental pollution by microplastics
Consider eco-friendly, sustainable plastic alternatives
B Corporations are businesses that have committed to reducing their global waste and observing fair hiring and manufacturing processes throughout the global supply chain, including the reduction of materials that generate microplastics. Just look for a little logo that looks like a B in a circle and consider making more of your purchases from companies that commit to B Corporation sustainability practices.
What are "B Corporations"?
B Corporations are businesses that have committed to reducing their global waste and observing fair hiring and manufacturing processes throughout the global supply chain, including the reduction of materials that generate microplastics.
Just look for a little logo that looks like a B in a circle and consider making more of your purchases from companies that commit to B Corporation sustainability practices.
Buy recycled plastic goods – and recycle them accordingly!
Cheap, disposable plastic objects are some of the biggest contributors to global microplastics pollution, since we use them once and throw them away immediately.
Think about all the single-use plastic things you use every day and multiply that by nearly 8 billion people – that’s more or less how much plastic waste is thrown away every day.
So try to buy plastic goods that are recyclable – look for that universal recycling logo with the arrows.
And look for a number inside the little recycling logo printed or designed into the object – not all recyclable goods can be recycled in the same way.
Here’s our quick cheat sheet for recycling:
1. PET – Polyethylene Terephthalate
- Throw it in your recycling bin.
- Don’t reuse it.
- This includes water bottles, soda cans, and food packaging.
2. HDPE – High-Density Polyethylene
- Throw it in your recycling bin
- Don’t reuse it.
- Try to avoid buying products with this label.
- Includes grocery bags and packaging for products like milk and bleach.
3 – PVC – Polyvinyl Chloride
- Not recyclable, but can be re-made into other products.
- Avoid buying products with this label.
- Includes plastic wrap and many outdoor garden hoses.
4. LDPE Low-density Polyethylene
- Difficult to recycle.
- Consider reusing products with this label.
- Includes squeezable bottles and the plastic used to wrap loaves of bread.
5. PP – Polypropylene
- Throw it in your recycling bin if your local recycling program takes it.
- Used in many cereal bags, food containers, and diapers.
6. PS – Polystyrene
- Difficult to recycle.
- Avoid buying or consider reusing products with this label.
- Includes foam plates and cups as well as packing peanuts.
- This covers a huge number of plastics – some are recyclable and some are not.
- Avoid buying products with this label or reuse them often.
Use a high-performance air purifier
Although a significant percentage of airborne microplastics can be as small as 1 micron and pose major health risks, microplastics particles are typically much bigger than most airborne pollutant particles like PM10 and PM2.5.
This makes them much easier to capture using a high-performance air purifier that filters out particles as small as 0.003 microns, the smallest particles that exist (and thousands of times smaller than even the tiniest microplastics).
But keep in mind that because of their size, microplastics are much heavier than typical airborne pollutants and can’t be sucked in by the small, weak motors of most cheap air purifiers.
High-performance, centrifugal fans are designed to trap and collect even large, heavy microplastics pollutants.
A personal air purifier can help filter microplastics from the air in environments like bedroom or workspaces, where microplastics can be emitted at high levels from clothing, desktop appliances, and containers.
A car air purifier can also help filter microplastics from tire and brake wear that enter your vehicle interior, especially on highways or busy roads.
Microplastics are a huge problem – but all of us can do our part to decrease how dependent we are on plastic-based products.
Consumers have the power of the dollar to stop buying plastic products, especially if you have the means to sacrifice a little disposable income to buy natural, plastic-free products.
Multiplied by millions of people, buying sustainable products can help reduce (and someday eliminate) the sheer volume of plastic that chokes the water, the air, and human bodies with pollutants and chemicals.