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It’s in the air we breathe: Microplastic in the atmosphere prompts new study at LSU

Tiny particles of plastic are showing up in unlikely places, which has prompted potentially groundbreaking research.
Tiny particles of plastic are showing up in unlikely places, which has prompted potentially groundbreaking research.(WAFB)
Published: Sep. 28, 2020 at 3:35 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - An LSU-based research duo is taking a microscopic look at an everyday product found in every home and business on the planet to find out if there are unforeseen health consequences to its overuse.

LSU Chemical Engineering Professors Bhuvnesh Bharti and Kalliat T. Valsaraj were awarded $300,000 by the National Science Foundation Chemistry Division to explore the impact of microplastic on the air we breathe. With the assistance of graduate student Ahmed Al Harraq, the team will test their hypothesis. If proven correct, it could lead to potentially groundbreaking discoveries.

The initial idea started like most great ideas do – with a conversation over a cup of coffee.

“We discussed what could be done and then we put our brains together,” Bharti said.

At the heart of the conversation was the discovery of plastic in a remote region of France, the Pyrenees mountains. The jagged landscape that borders France and Spain is 11,000 feet above sea level and the nearest major city is 75 miles away. That’s why it seemed odd when researchers discovered 35 tiny plastic fragments or fibers on every square meter of land.

“This aspect of how microplastics get transported has become very interesting,” said Valsaraj, who has spent the last 25 years conducting atmospheric chemistry research.

Bhart, on the other hand, is focused on research specific to microsized particles.

“It’s really our complementary expertise that led to us getting this award,” said Bharti. “It’s really our unique backgrounds that we believe will help us create a better understanding of this basic phenomenon.”

Microplastics are exactly as the name describes. They’re particles of plastic the size of a poppy seed or smaller and they’re showing up everywhere. Scientists know very little about how they are moving and what they will do to humans.

“We know that plastics do not tend to biodegrade that easily,” Valsaraj explained. “When they do breakdown, these particles will be transported in the water.”

Water transport, however, was not an option for the Pyrenees mountains.

“They are getting airborne and then they get transported by trade winds to these very remote areas,” Valsaraj noted. “My first thought was, how do I model this? How do I show how they’re [microplastics] being transferred? How do they become these micro-sized particles? That we do not know. We do not have enough data.”

The plastic problem is no longer a trash problem. And it’s no longer contained to oceanic pollution, which is where the majority field has focused its energy. Plastic is now literally everywhere. What does this mean and how did we get here?

L-R: Bhuvnesh Bharti, Kalliat Valsaraj, and Ahmed Al Harraq
L-R: Bhuvnesh Bharti, Kalliat Valsaraj, and Ahmed Al Harraq(WAFB)

What is plastic?

Plastic is one word used to describe thousands of different types of materials that exist in the consumer market. What starts as oil, natural gas, or coal ends up as a container used to take home leftovers, toys for the kids, or a garden hose to water your plants.

The Society of the Plastics Industry – yes, that’s a real thing – established a classification system because not all plastic is created equal. Every plastic product has an SPI code on the bottom, which is a sort of fingerprint to identify the type of plastic it is and the process used to create it.

For example, common household items are made from Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). It’s used to make beverage bottles. But the cap on that bottle is typically a different kind of plastic. It is generally a Polypropylene (PP). It’s stronger and can withstand higher temperatures, so that’s why it’s used for the cap, not for the bottle.

From the potato chips you eat, to the carpeted floor you walk on, plastic particles are everywhere in the modern home and the evolution to get that way didn’t take too long.

From then to now

What we know as the modern plastic industry started in 1869 by U.S. inventor John Wesley Hyatt. From cellulose - the organic material that makes up the lining of cell walls in plants – he created a material that mimicked ivory, which comes from the tusk of an elephant.

What Hyatt discovered was a revolutionary way to make create items that would save the lives of wild animals that were being over-hunted.

Next came the first fully synthetic plastic invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland. His creation, Bakelite, was the first plastic to contain no molecules found in nature. His product is best used as an insulator because it’s durable, heat resistant, and ideally suited for mechanical mass production.

It wasn’t until America found itself embroiled in World War II that the true plastic revolution began. The need to grow and innovate was immediate.

Nylon and Plexiglas were two of the many inventions that came during the war. In fact, the production of plastic in the U.S. went up 300 percent, much of that ending up on the consumer market. Once the war was over, things didn’t slow down much.

The 1950s marked a shift in the American economy. Corporations were growing and small businesses were booming. Jobs were readily available, and people wanted to spend some money. And spend they did.

The following decade ushered in a new era of environmental conservatism. Marine litter was discovered in continuous plankton recorders, used for fishing purposes. Although discovered by accident, it was soon an issue that could not go ignored.

Plastic started to lose favor with the public due to the negative publicity surrounding the litter discoveries.

Along with big hair, the 1980s brought another new discovery - high performance engineered plastics. This allowed for additives to enhance properties and create the ability to retard flames, UV protection, chemical protection, temperature stabilization, pliability, and many other traits. These additives have become the focus of study to explore the potential health effects.

Research on human health

On August 22, 2019, the World Health Organization released its latest assessment of the health impacts of microplastics and the conclusion was vague, but ominous as well. The report surmised that the impact is still so understudied it’s difficult to come to a conclusion at this time.

“We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere - including in our drinking water,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health, at WHO. “Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more. We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide.”

The good news is that wastewater treatment plants can remove more than 90% of microplastics from wastewater. In fact, WHO noted that there are far greater drinking water concerns worldwide.

“A significant proportion of the global population currently does not benefit from adequate water and sewage treatment,” states the press release. “By addressing the problem of human exposure to faecally contaminated water, communities can simultaneously address the concern related to microplastics.”

But we’re not just drinking the problem. It’s in the food we eat and possibly in the air we breathe.

“There’s a public health issue that has not been resolved,” Valsaraj noted.

Recycling dilemma

An advertising campaign launched in the 1980 touted recycling as the cure to the plastic problem. Toss it in a bin and get new products made from the waste of old. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the truth.

“There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.

That quote comes from a recently published NPR and PBS Frontline special report. Investigative journalists spent months digging into internal industry documents, only to find that recycling was never really the cure to the plastic problem, only a solution to the negative plastic perceptions.

READ THE ARTICLE: How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association and one of the industry’s most powerful trade groups in Washington, D.C., told NPR.

All hope is not lost. There are ways to make recycling more viable. More importantly, there are things the industry can do to prevent some of the plastic problems from ever happening.

Industry response

Baton Rouge, Louisiana is a great place for researchers to dive into the microplastic effect.

“The demand for new technology is making Baton Rouge and its petrochemical plants ground zero for surging export demand in the plastics market,” states Sam Barnes in an article published by The Greater Baton Rouge Business Report earlier this year.

ExxonMobil a leader in the plastic industry and is one of the many companies taking a deep dive into the ways of reducing harm.

“We are continuing to develop polymers that enable customers to use less plastic and make the plastic they use easier to recycle. For example, our new performance polyethylene resins enable our customers to meet their performance needs, often with more than 20 percent thinner, lighter-weight products, thus reducing materials consumption and waste. Our VistamaxxTM performance polymers help customers increase the amount of recycled content in plastics without degrading performance. We are also assessing technology options to economically convert plastic waste to petrochemical feedstock by leveraging reliable, large-scale chemical processes,” states the company’s website.

This is just one example, but it certainly points to movement in the right direction.

Bioplastic is another direction being taken by the industry. It’s also an area where LSU is investing research.

RELATED: LSU professor refines process to make biodegradable Mardi Gras beads

“We need to find new materials that can potentially overcome these limitations,” noted Bharti.

What’s next?

If you’ve made it this far, no doubt you’re a little concerned. You know there’s a problem. You know people are working on solutions. What you don’t know is what you are supposed to do next.

We are still at the beginning of what we have learned. That’s why the work being done at LSU is so important. Although we do not know exactly how microplastics could be impacting human health, we do know there is a real need to reduce consumption and to change our approach with our current standards.

“It’s more about thinking about what our legacy will be,” Bharti said. “We need to have a multipronged approach.”

We can clean up much of the trash we made, but it will be up to the next generation to prevent making a new, potentially more harmful mess in the future.

“In the chemical engineering department, my main aim is to teach our students that what you make may last for a long time and you should think about the consequences of the materials you’re creating. Plastics have been useful in many ways, but we have not given much thought to that impact on the environment.”

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