It’s easy to talk about pollution that’s far away. It doesn’t concern us–it’s deep in the oceans, in poor underdeveloped countries, with people who are different and maybe indifferent.
And it’s also easy to export our garbage to them, because after all, it’s only fair, we pay them something for it (if needed) and we continue business as usual. Pollution that’s not in my backyard, doesn’t concern me.
It seems, however, that my backyard is still on the same planet, and no matter how much I trash the neighbour’s backyard, I will have to deal with my garbage eventually. In a recent study in Nature Geoscience, researchers report that it rains microplastics in remote mountainous areas in France.
Most of the detected microplastics had a size less than half the diameter of a human hair. Plastics may take 1000 years to decompose, but in the process they become fragmented into micro- or nano-scale particles which travel freely through the food chain and bioaccumulate. At a finer scale, but much through similar processes, we end up digesting and breathing invisible particles of plastic like the whale who was recently found dead with some 40kg of plastic trash in his stomach.
UNESCO estimates that 100.000 marine mammals have the same fate every year. Humans do not bioaccumulate plastics only through the trophic chain, they are also exposed to microplastics through the air. And while the presence of air particulates is known to be linked to asthma, cardiac and cognitive problems, among others, little is known about the specific health impacts of microplastics. We do know that they can end up in lung tissue, but the consequences are yet unknown, even more so because microplastics are usually sticky and carry with them heavy metals and other toxic compounds.
It is no news that microplastics are transported through the atmosphere and the rain. Previous research had described microplastic transport and disposition in Paris (France) and Dongguan (China). This time, however, the study took place in the Pyrenees, with no significant source of pollution in a radius of some 75km. Pollution is a global issue, and focusing only on our backyard is not going to solve it.