Researchers from Australia have uncovered that people are likely exposed to thousands of airborne microplastics a year, primarily while indoors.
The research team found that the average human exposure of airborne microplastics as 2,674 particles per person per year, with indoors rates between one and 28 times higher than outdoors in Sri Lanka.
This comes just a week after it was found that microplastics were flowing through eight freshwater streams in South Australia, raising the alarm on health concerns surrounding the particles.
“While the inhalation of MPs (microplastics) is suggested to be an important pathway of human exposure to plastics, there is very little data on their concentration in the air,” PhD candidate from the Australian Rivers Institute, Kushani Perera, said.
“Most of the limited research on airborne MPs (AMPs) comes from high-income countries with good waste management practices, with only a handful of studies in lower-middle-income countries.”
With airborne microplastic studies limited in the past, the research team used an active sampling technique, that “pumped a known volume of air through a filter and evaluated the collected MPs”.
The team says this is a more relevant study method, capable of identifying human exposure to the microplastics in the air. The research co-author, Professor Frederic Leusch, said that no previous study had been conducted in South Asia to identify airborne microplastics using an active sampling method (to the best of their knowledge).
The dominant type of airborne microplastics found both inside and outside included PET fibres, such as those from clothes or textiles.
“These initial results from Sri Lanka, show that the amount of indoor airborne microplastics is more related to indoor sources and the occupants’ lifestyle than the outdoor environment,” added Leusch.
“In the outdoor samples, the amount of AMPs was always greater in high-density sites compared to the low-density areas, suggesting the abundance and distribution of AMPs was related to population density, level of industrialisation, and human activity.”
The team says that more research will need to be done, with the South Asian region made up of nearly a quarter of the world’s population, and being the second largest contributor to plastic waste.
What can you do about airborne microplastics?
We don’t yet know the full extent of the effect microplastics will have on humans, but It’s expected that microplastics could cause humans oxidative stress, DNA damage and inflammation, among other problems, however, their true extent of them is still unknown. Last year, a link was found between microplastics and IBD symptoms.
What can you do to avoid airborne microplastics, though? Well, regular dusting and vacuuming helps, as does using an air purifier. Gram Sustainable also claims that you should avoid washing your plastic-based clothes in regular washing machines and instead use washing machines with microplastic-catching filters or hand-wash the garments.
Plastic-free cosmetics and lowering your use of single-use plastics is also recommended.
It’s definitely worrying that microplastics are so abundant around the world. Hopefully we can cut back on them sooner rather than later.