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Let’s start with the basics. Microplastics are tiny specks of plastic less than 5 millimeters long—think anything shorter than the width of a pencil eraser. They come in two main categories.
The first type is known as primary, which are already small plastics, like glitter, and are directly released into the environment. The other type is secondary microplastics, which form when larger plastics degrade.
Most plastics are broken down through weathering, like when they’re exposed to waves, wind abrasion, and UV radiation. And depending on the type of plastic, it can take up to hundreds of years to break down, if at all.
And because microplastics are so tiny and lightweight, they can be transported over long distances globally. Eighty four percent of those microplastics likely originated from roads with the rest coming from oceans and agricultural dust.
Roads and the cars that drive on them provide the mechanical energy needed to make plastic airborne. As you’re racing down the highway, tiny bits of tire and other microplastics stuck to your tire slough off and fly away.
Think of it much like the way people move sand away from a beach, cars can move plastic away from cities, and then also move those plastics high into the atmosphere.
Limited research has also revealed that microplastics affect the health of plants and animals, which has impacts on the entire food chain.
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Microplastics Are Now Spiralling Around The Globe in The Air We Breathe
While the remote wilderness of Antarctica isn’t exporting any airborne microplastics, it’s very likely to be importing them, the model showed – and it’s a similar story across the planet. Microplastics are accumulating just about everywhere scientists look, including national parks, with the highest concentrations estimated to be over the oceans.
Are you breathing plastic air at home? Here’s how microplastics are polluting our lungs
The majority of microplastics found in the indoor air, however, comes from plastic fibres released from synthetic clothing and textiles used in home furnishings. These microplastic fibres tend to be longer and therefore more harmful when inhaled. Today, synthetic materials, such as acrylic, nylon, polyester, make up some 60% of global textile production.
You’re Likely Inhaling 11 Tiny Bits of Plastic Per Hour
“We now have enough evidence that we should start looking for microplastic inside human airways,” Vollertsen said. “Until then, it’s unclear whether or not we should be worried that we are breathing in plastic.”
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