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EDITORIAL: There’s plastic in all of us

Plastic collected from the ocean in Southeast Asia. — Reuters file photo

Want plastic with that?

No?

Too bad. Chances are, you’re getting it anyway.

It’s not news that plastics — particularly microplastics, the tiniest scraps of the material formed as plastic materials break down — are practically ubiquitous.

They are in almost every large body of water — in the Great Lakes, certainly in all of the world’s oceans — and often in the ocean’s residents as well. Microplastics have been found in the tissue of mussels in northern Norway, and in filter-feeders in many other locations.

Significant amounts of microplastics are being found in the Arctic, but “there are large knowledge gaps regarding pathways to the North” — so how did the plastics get there?

But remember that old Palmolive commercial? The one that argued that Palmolive was so “soft on hands” that a patron at a beauty salon was soaking her hands in it?

Well, back to plastics. You’re breathing in it.

Or, more to the point, you’re probably breathing it in.

A group of scientists published the results of their Arctic microplastics study in the journal Atmospheric Science this week. The question they wanted to address? Significant amounts of microplastics are being found in the Arctic, but “there are large knowledge gaps regarding pathways to the North” — so how did the plastics get there?

Well, after studying Arctic snow, they think they’ve found the answer. They call it “atmospheric transport,” and it means that while snow might “droppeth … from heaven” like Shakespeare’s “gentle rain,” it also drops with plastics onboard. — lots of plastics.

Scientist Dr. Melanie Bergmann told the BBC that, “We expected to find some contamination but to find this many microplastics was a real shock. … It’s readily apparent that the majority of the microplastic in the snow comes from the air.”

As the study points out, “Further, airborne microplastics represent a hitherto largely neglected route of exposure to humans and wildlife as these particles could be taken up through inhalation.”

It’s not the only study that has found microplastics in air. Also this week, a joint study by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Geological Survey found plastics in rain at remote sites in the Rocky Mountains: “Plastics were identified in more than 90 per cent of the samples. The plastic materials were mostly fibers that were only visible with magnification … Fibers were present in a variety of colors; the most frequently observed color was blue followed by red, (then) silver, purple, green, yellow, other colors. Plastic particles such as beads and shards were also observed with magnification. More plastic fibers were observed in samples from urban sites than from remote, mountainous sites.”

It’s good to know we’re more likely to be breathing blue or red plastic than that nasty yellow stuff.

But seriously, if there’s plastic in the air in the Arctic and at 3,159 metres up on Loch Vale in Colorado, the chances are it’s in the air on your deck, in your house, and everywhere else.

What kind of soup are we making for ourselves?

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