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Microplastics in the clouds: A new environmental threat

Microplastics in the clouds: A new environmental threat

Microplastics are already present in every corner of the planet. In fact, on more than one occasion various studies have recorded them in remote areas, such as Antarctica, the bottom of the sea and even breast milk. Now, a recent study published in the journal Environmental Chemistry Letters showed that these small particles are present in clouds.

The first thing to understand is that microplastics are known as those plastic particles that are less than five millimeters in size and are dangerous because they consist of various types of monomers, which are organic molecules that form synthetic polymers. For example, vinyl chloride would be the monomer in the PVC production chain.

Some studies have shown that the damage from microplastics in the body can range from cell death or allergic reactions to damage to cell walls.

Tiny plastic particles, various harmful chemicals

For this study, scientists climbed Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama, aiming to collect water from the fog that shrouds their peaks. Then, they analyzed the collected samples to determine their physical and chemical properties. 

After the studies, the team of researchers managed to determine that it contained nine types of polymers and one type of rubber in the airborne microplastics. The size, they added, ranged between 7.1 and 94.6 micrometers. Additionally, they determined that each liter of cloud water contained between 6.7 and 13.9 plastic particles.

The most common type of plastic in these samples, they said, was “hydrophilic” polymers, which also play an important role in the rapid formation of clouds. But why are these results worrying? Hiroshi Okochi, professor at Waseda University (Japan) and author of the study, pointed out that these materials degrade when they reach the upper layer of the atmosphere and are exposed to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight. This, he pointed out, contributes to the generation of greenhouse gases.

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Tiny plastic bits harm humans, animals

“Microplastics” are tiny plastic particles smaller than 5 mm. They come from things like industrial waste and breaking down bigger plastic items. Studies have shown that both people and animals consume or breathe in a lot of these microplastics.

They have been found in various body parts, like the lungs, heart, and even the placenta. Enormous amounts of these tiny plastic bits end up in the ocean and can be released into the air. This means that microplastics might be a part of clouds and could contaminate what we eat and drink through “plastic rain.” Most research on microplastics has focused on water, but not much has looked at how they affect clouds and climate as “airborne particles.”

A new study led by Hiroshi Okochi, a professor at Waseda University, and his team in Japan explored what happens to these airborne microplastics (AMPs) as they move through the environment, affecting human health and the climate.

“Microplastics in the free troposphere are transported and contribute to global pollution,” Okochi explains. “If we do not proactively address the issue of ‘plastic air pollution,’ climate change and ecological risks may become a reality, causing irreversible and serious environmental damage in the future.”

Mountain cloud water, microplastics studied

To figure out what these tiny plastic particles do in the air and at the edge of the atmosphere, the researchers collected cloud water from different heights on mountains, like Mount Fuji. They used advanced imaging techniques to check if microplastics were present and to learn more about them.

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The researchers found nine different types of plastics and one type of rubber in the airborne microplastics. Most of the polypropylene they found was broken down and had specific chemical groups. These microplastics were very small, especially those found high in the atmosphere. Importantly, the cloud water had a lot of water-attracting plastics, suggesting that they help form clouds. This means that microplastics may play a significant role in making clouds quickly, which could impact the climate.

If microplastics keep building up in the air, especially in places like the polar regions, it could harm the balance of nature on Earth and cause a loss of many different species. Okochi concludes by saying, “AMPs break down faster in the upper atmosphere because of strong sunlight, and this breakdown releases greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. So, the results of this study can help us understand the effects of microplastics on future climate change predictions.”

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