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Microplastics found in clouds may be affecting the weather

Microplastic pollution, previously observed from oceans to mountain tops, has now been detected in clouds, raising concerns about its potential impact on weather patterns. 

Microplastics are tiny plastic fragments, smaller than five millimeters, that originate from commonly used products like clothing, packaging, and car tires. Once released into the environment, they can travel through the air and end up in unexpected places. 

Microplastics in the sky

In a new study published by the American Chemical Society, a team of researchers led by Yan Wang has discovered microplastics in cloud samples from Mount Tai in eastern China. Their findings reveal that lower-altitude, denser clouds contain higher amounts of microplastics, consisting of common polymers like polyethylene terephthalate and polypropylene.

“Airborne microplastics (MPs) have the potential to travel a long distance and undergo several cloud processes through atmospheric transport. However, little is known about the interactions between MPs and clouds,” wrote the study authors. 

Cloud formation 

The experts found that microplastics, typically smaller than 100 micrometers, can sometimes stretch up to 1,500 micrometers. Notably, the older and rougher microplastics contained additional substances like lead, mercury, and oxygen on their surfaces, which could facilitate cloud development.

Wang and the team used computer models to trace the origins of these microplastics, pointing to inland areas as the primary source, rather than oceans or neighboring mountains. 

Study implications 

Laboratory experiments further showed that microplastics exposed to cloud-like conditions, involving ultraviolet light and filtered cloud-sourced water, undergo changes in size and texture. 

These modified particles, bearing more lead, mercury, and oxygen-containing groups, suggest that clouds alter microplastics in ways that might influence cloud formation and the distribution of airborne metals.

The researchers emphasize that this is a growing area of study, and more research is needed to understand the full extent of microplastics’ effects on clouds and weather. This discovery adds to the growing concern about the pervasive nature of microplastic pollution and its unforeseen impacts on the environment.

Dangers of microplastics 

Microplastics pose significant environmental and health risks due to their widespread presence and persistence. Here are some of the key dangers associated with microplastics:

Wildlife impact

Microplastics are often ingested by marine and terrestrial animals, mistaking them for food. This can lead to physical harm, digestive blockages, and even death. Additionally, the chemicals in these plastics can be toxic and may accumulate in the food chain, affecting biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Human health risks

Microplastics can make their way into human food sources, particularly seafood. The long-term health effects of ingesting microplastics are not fully understood, but there is concern about potential toxicity from the chemicals in plastics and the pollutants they can carry.

Environmental persistence

Plastics are highly durable and can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. This long lifespan means that the accumulation of microplastics is a growing problem, with particles continually breaking down into smaller and more widespread forms.

Chemical contamination

Microplastics can absorb and concentrate environmental pollutants like heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants. These toxic substances can then be transferred to organisms that ingest the microplastics, potentially causing various health issues.

Impact on soil health

Microplastics are not just a marine issue; they are also found in soils. Their presence can affect soil structure, water retention, and microbial communities, ultimately impacting plant growth and soil health.

Airborne particles

Microplastics have been found in the air, raising concerns about inhalation by humans. Breathing in microplastic particles, particularly those small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, could have health implications, although this area requires more research.

Water quality

Microplastics can affect the quality of both freshwater and marine ecosystems, leading to changes in water clarity and chemistry. They can also impact wastewater treatment processes.

Climate change interaction

There is ongoing research into how microplastics interact with climate change. For example, their role in cloud formation and potential impact on weather patterns is a subject of current study.

The research was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

The research is published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

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