Study: That Fresh Sea Breeze You Breathe May Be Laced With Microplastic

Wired discusses how That Fresh Sea Breeze You Breathe May Be Laced With Microplastic. Researchers have discovered that the ocean is burping tiny plastic particles, which then blow onto land—and potentially into your lungs.

WHEN YOU STAND on a beach and take in a great big gulp of fresh air, you’re actually breathing bacteria, viruses, and aerosolized salts. Those are all punted into the air when whales breach or waves crash or even when bubbles rise to the surface of the sea, ejecting material that gets caught up in sea breezes and fog banks. And as much as I hate to rain on your beach day, you can now add an omnipresent pollutant to that list of debris: microplastics.

Microplastics are the ground-up remnants of plastic bottles and bags, or the synthetic fibers shed from your polyester clothing—technically anything smaller than 5 millimeters long—and of late scientists have been finding them everywhere, from the deep sea to the tallest mountains. And now, writing today in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers from Europe and South Africa demonstrate in the lab how popping bubbles can fling microplastics into the air; the same team also gathered microplastics from the air flowing over a French beach. The picture ain’t pretty: They found that up to 19 microplastic fragments float in a cubic meter of air. Even worse, they were measuring at the edge of relatively clean Atlantic waters—highly polluted seas like the Mediterranean are probably flinging far more particles onshore. Globally, the researchers calculate that 136,000 tons of microplastic could be blowing onshore each year.

Ocean currents then transport the microplastic particles far and wide: Just last month, another group of researchers showed how microplastics flow into the deep sea, eventually settling in sediment and corrupting seafloor ecosystems.

The Allens’ previous research has shown that winds can carry microplastics far and wide, transporting them from European cities onto the supposedly pristine mountaintops of the French Pyrenees.

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