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Breaking Down Microplastics

What is Microplastic?

Microplastics are small particles of plastic, measuring less than 5 millimeters in length, that have become a global environmental concern. These tiny fragments can originate from various sources, such as the breakdown of larger plastic items, the abrasion of synthetic fabrics, and the disintegration of plastic waste. Due to their minute size, they can easily infiltrate various environments, including oceans, air, and even our bodies.

Tiny Fragments, Huge Dispersion

The prevalence of microplastics is evident in various locations, from the depths of our oceans to the air we breathe. They have been found in massive quantities in our oceans, with a staggering 170 trillion pieces weighing around 2.4 million metric tons. Plastic pollution has surged since 2004, leading to an exponential increase in microplastic levels worldwide. Besides oceans, microplastics have been detected in the atmosphere and are carried through the air, potentially reaching remote and pristine locations. Alarmingly, research has also uncovered microplastics in human blood, the placentas of fetuses, and various food items, including vegetables, fruits, and even salt. 

“About 11 million metric tons of this plastic end up in the ocean every year, and without intervention, this number is expected to triple by 2040.”

- Livia Albeck-Ripka, “In a First, California Plans to Clean Up Microplastics,” The New York Times

Handful of Microplastics

Adverse Effects on Animals and Human Health

The harmful impacts of microplastics are far-reaching and concerning. For marine life, microplastics pose a significant threat. Animals such as turtles, birds, sea lions, and sharks can get entangled in plastics, leading to injuries and fatalities. Additionally, ingesting microplastics can be just as deadly, as it can damage the reproductive systems of fish and cause delays in the growth and maturation of birds. Microplastics can also find their way into our bodies through the food and water we consume, raising concerns about potential health risks.

 In particular, research has highlighted the link between microplastics and neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's. Environmental toxins, including microplastics, have been implicated in the rise of these disorders, leading to calls for increased research and awareness. It has also been found that when microplastics, namely polyurethane, migrate to the lungs, it can cause cancer, asthma, headaches, dizziness, and lung irritation. As we encounter over 80,000 toxic chemicals in our daily lives, understanding the cumulative impact of environmental toxins on our health remains a challenge.

How FTIR is being Used to Research Microplastics

Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) is a powerful analytical method used to study microplastics. By identifying particles based on distinctive vibrational bands, FTIR microscopy allows researchers to analyze different types of plastics present in water samples. This efficient technique, utilizing Focal Plane Detectors (FPA), enables the generation of chemical images, saving valuable time during analysis. 

FTIR has become an essential tool in understanding the fate of microplastics and their potential effects on human health and the environment. In an interview with Isabelle Gomez, recent graduate from California State University Channel Islands, Gomez shared her research on how she used FTIR to study microplastics in the following waterways of Ventura County: Calleguas Creek, Conejo Mountain Creek, South Branch Arroyo Conejo, and the South Branch Arroyo Conejo Tributary. In her time at the university, Isabelle used FTIR to identify the chemical composition of microplastics and to analyze different types of plastic in water samples. Once samples were gathered, she categorized microplastics based on color and morphology, providing crucial data for identifying plastic sources and better understanding their impact.

Black Fiber - Microplastics StudyBlack Fibers. Photo courtesy of Isabell Gomez.

Isabelle found that some of the most common types of microplastics found in the above mentioned creeks were transparent fibers and films, black fibers and fragments, blue and yellow fibers, and red fragments. The fibers, filaments, and fragments analyzed through FTIR were ultimately classified as the following: Pentalyn H (a synthetic resin used within adhesives), rayon, polyester, nylon, olefin (a polypropylene fiber), and acrylic polymers. Polyester, Pentalyn H, acrylic polymers, and nylon are all categorized as synthetic microplastics whereas rayon is classified as a cellulose-based semi-synthetic fiber. The latter is commonly found in clothing and sheds frequently, making it a common polluter.

Her research also indicated that the occurrence of microplastics in our waterways dramatically increased after storms. For example, on days without rain, Calleguas Creek had an average of 15 microplastics, while on rainy days, the average number increased to 30.2 per 500 mL. Additionally, sites closer to agricultural areas had higher pollution levels during high stormwater events. Isabelle concluded that when combined with heavy rainfall, agricultural runoff and drainage pipes were the main culprits of the spike in microplastics.

Conserving riparian corridors and native vegetation is strongly linked to alleviating the harmful effects of microplastic pollution; one cannot be accomplished without the other. The remarkable capability of detecting microplastics in water samples empowers scientists to identify the exact sources of pollution in our local communities. Undoubtedly, FTIR plays a pivotal role in monitoring and effectively managing environmental degradation caused by microplastics.

Calleguas Watershed1024_1Calleguas Creek Watershed Site Locations. Photo courtesy of Isabell Gomez

The Next Steps

How can we mitigate the damage caused by microplastics, and reduce the amount of microplastics introduced into the environment every day? The answer is found in reducing our dependence on single-use plastics such as the following: 

  • Beverage containers
  • Water bottles
  • Cups for beverages
  • Cutlery, plates, straws, and stirrers
  • Food containers
  • Plastic bags
  • Packets and wrappers
  • Wet wipes and sanitary items
  • Cotton bud sticks
  • Floss picks
  • Razors
  • Balloons and sticks for balloons
  • Cigarette butts

Opt for glass bottles, beeswax wraps, cloth bags, wood or metal straws, ceramic or metal cutlery, plates, and cups. Disposable, single-use plastic seems to be the reactive and impulsive choice for people pressed for time or in need of a convenient solution. It’s easier to use plastic cutlery and foodware when camping or when hosting a party. And plenty of activities are built around the use of plastic: packaging and shipping services (styrofoam, bubble wrap), fast fashion (cheaply made throwaway clothes), personal care (toiletry bottles), agriculture (plastic films), fishing (monofilament fishing line, nets), and the medical industry (gloves, gowns) are just a few. But the right choice is not often the easy choice. Transitioning from single-use plastics to reusable and more sustainable alternatives demands patience and a profound realization that the issue will exacerbate unless human behavior undergoes a transformative shift. This must be a collective group effort. 

Microplastics represent a significant environmental challenge, with their presence spanning oceans, air, and even our own bodies. Understanding their impact on marine life and human health is essential for developing effective strategies to reduce their harmful effects. Thanks to researchers such as Isabelle, the use of cutting-edge techniques like Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) is at the forefront of microplastics research. By avoiding single-use plastic and embracing responsible waste management, we can collectively address the issue of microplastics and safeguard our planet for future generations. 

List of Resources

  1. “Microplastics detected in human blood for the very first time.”
  2. “In a First, California Plans to Clean Up Microplastics.”
  3. “Exposure to environmental toxins may be root of rise in neurological disorders.”
  4. “Microplastics are in our bodies. How much do they harm us?”
  5. There are 21,000 pieces of plastic in the ocean for each person on Earth.”
  6. 2018 California Safe Drinking Water Act: Microplastics Senate Bill 1422.”
  7. FTIR and AI in Microplastics analysis.”
  8. Single Use Plastics.”