Updated: Jun 29, 2021
Written by: Nate McMullen
Plastic is “absolutely everywhere.” Scientists have found microplastics in the most remote of places, from the depths of the ocean to the highest peaks. The question now becomes, how do the particles reach these isolated areas? A new study might have the answer.
For years, scientists had little understanding about the movement of microplastics through the environment. A recent study illuminates exactly how the pollution permeates our planet. It was traditionally thought that, once microplastics became “stuck,” or embedded, in soil or sediment, they would remain there indefinitely. Not so, indicates research from Princeton University. Microplastics do clog openings in porous materials but break up and move elsewhere in a “cyclical” pattern that allows the substances to move much farther than originally thought.
The implications of the study’s findings are numerous. First of all, it explains why microplastics can be found literally everywhere on Earth. Due to their ability to cyclically move through porous surfaces, they are not limited to the site of pollution. Secondly, it emphasizes that microplastic pollution is not simply a local concern, but a global one that must be addressed accordingly. If we are to truly slow the plastic epidemic, nations across the globe must cooperate to reduce pollution. Thirdly, and more optimistically, it opens an entirely new door to studying the effects of pollution on our environment. Microplastic dynamics can provide insight into the movement of similar nanoparticles — like engineered particles intended for environmental remediation. The more we understand, the better we can address the problem.
So we know that microplastics are everywhere and how they got there: how does that affect us? While more research is needed to fully determine microplastic effects on humans, we know that the associated chemical exposure can have numerous deleterious health consequences, including “reproductive harm and obesity, plus issues such as organ problems and developmental delays in children.” Other research conducted on animals shows that microplastics can cross the protective membrane into the brain, and the placenta into the developing fetus. Smaller particles have the potential to discharge hormone-disrupting chemicals like bisphenol A into our bodies. Ubiquitous microplastics are not simply the concern of suffocating marine critters — they have the potential to become an(other) existential crisis of our time.