May 23, 2019 | Updated: 06:04 PM EDT

We Could Be Inhaling Plastic and Don't Know It

Apr 19, 2019 10:49 AM EDT

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By now, we are all familiar with the 'evil' that plastics bring to our friends from the ocean.  Everyone has probably seen dozens of pictures of turtles being strangled by plastics and dolphins with plastic in their stomach. Well a study has recently confirmed that plastics are in the air too, causing harm to the environment and small animals, like insects.

Microplastics are, as the name suggests, very small pieces of plastic with size not greater than five millimeters.  This is about the size of a sesame seed, although those that are found in the environment are at 10 to 300 microns with most at 50.  For comparison, the average human hair is 70 microns thick. Microplastics occur everywhere and are barely noticeable because of its size. Examples of these are remnants of disposable contact lenses that have broken down over time, small beads or crystals from everyday products like toothpaste and body scrubs, and mostly debris from larger plastics. In 2017, microplastics were found in 83 percent of tap water samples from all around the world. Because of this, the use of microplastics in hygiene products have been banned by some governments.

Researchers from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and the French National Center for Scientific Research at the University of Toulouse have collaborated to come up with the Pyrenees study, where they prove that these microplastics are in the air too. They have compared it with dust from the Sahara; dust, because of its size is carried by fast winds and transported to great distances. The same principle is seen with microplastics-it is carried by moving water and air. The difference is that microplastics are much lighter than sand, so they are easier to transport from one place to another. "At 450 microns, it can still travel 3,500 kilometers," Deonie Allen, one of the researchers, said. "Plastics are not as dense, they are about half the weight and they are irregularly shaped, so aerodynamically, it is easier for the particles to be lifted into the air."

Microplastics, though small, have great impact in animal life and in the environment.  They are known to block the gut of fish and insects and of course as plastics, their chemical composition can be very harmful to the bodily system of animals. At the same time, the chemical composition of these microplastics are also absorbed by the environment and affect the fauna living in it. "When you put plastic into that environment, it absorbs that chemical, which means those protection or defense responses are no longer occurring," Allen said. "It is not just about biological impacts inside the animal; it also impacts the environment it is living in." And although we have yet to find out about their effects on human health, the Pyrenees study is definitely a wake up call to regulate our plastic consumption.

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