You’ve probably heard of microplastics – tiny, nearly invisible particles of plastic infamous for having seeped into our global ecosystem.
And while you may have heard about the damage that microplastics have caused to the oceans, experts are starting to sound the alarm about microplastics and air pollution.
Why? Because you may be inhaling up to 16.2 bits of plastic from your own clothes and plastic containers every hour – that can add up to breathing in the equivalent of an entire credit card every week.1
That’s according to a breakthrough study by a research team in Denmark who opened the floodgates to the idea that microplastics are everywhere – including the air.
So let’s focus on the macro of microplastics – we’ll cover:
- where microplastics come from
- how microplastics get into the air you breathe
- what effects microplastics have on your body when they’re inhaled
- what you can do to protect yourself from inhaling microplastics
- how to reduce the amount that gets into the air in the first place
What exactly are microplastics?
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), microplastics are chunks of plastic that measure less than five millimeters (mm) across, less than a quarter of an inch.2
NOAA researchers have found microplastics in both the air and water, including oceans, lakes, in snowfall, and rainfall – this is because microplastics are small enough to get transferred from water to air and back again in the evaporation and precipitation parts of the water cycle.3
Microplastics are also produced as a byproduct of sewage treatment, which can send wastewater containing microplastics into the ocean where microplastics then evaporate into the atmosphere in huge volumes.4
These microplastics can originate from a huge number of possible sources, including:5
- synthetic materials washed off clothes during laundry cycles, such as polyester and polypropylene
- abrasions to vehicle tires on the road that cause tiny tire shreds to fly off
- abrasions to everyday plastic or synthetic objects, like the soles of shoes and cooking utensils
- runoff from plastic components used to develop and mark roads
- coatings used on marine equipment and infrastructure, such as container ships
- plastic components used in personal care products, such as plastic microdermabrasion beads in face wash
- plastic pellets used in manufacturing
Are microplastics bad for you?
Many microplastics are small enough to be inhaled straight into your lungs.
Like other foreign objects, microplastics can be harmful when they get into your airways. They can cause swelling and damage to your windpipe and to the tissue of your lungs, making you feel mild chest pain or shortness of breath.
Over time, microplastics can build up and damage the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs. This can increase your risk of developing lung conditions like emphysema and lung cancer.6,7
Some of the smallest microplastics can even get into your bloodstream. Combined with plaque and other pollutant particles like PM2.5 building up in your bloodstream, microplastics can contribute to hardening of your arteries (atherosclerosis) and blockages that can lead to heart coronary artery disease and attacks.8
Many airborne microplastics also carry other dangerous pollutants on their surface.
In big cities with the highest concentrations of microplastics, many of these particles adsorb pollutants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that result from the production of chemicals, smoking cigarettes, and burning fuel in cars or factories.9
Inhaling pollutant-covered microplastics has been linked to other health effects, such as:10,11
- eye irritation
- trouble breathing
- feeling disoriented
- kidney and liver damage
- cancer of the skin, lungs, bladder, liver, or stomach
How do microplastics get into the air?
There’s no easy answer to this. Although some microplastics get into the atmosphere when water containing microplastics evaporates, that’s far from the only source.
The short answer is that microplastics can get into the air when any plastic object gets damaged, scraped, abraded, and so on.
Here are a couple of examples to illustrate:
- when you drive a car, your tires are slowly wearing down due to the friction and heat generated when the rubber (literally) hits the road. This is because millions of tiny microscopic pieces of rubber and plastic used to make tires fly off the tire and into the air.
- many pieces of clothing made of polyester contain tiny plastic components that are added during production. When you rub the surface of polyester clothing, thousands of tiny fibers are released into the air (like when you itch your skin and tons of skin cells flake off into the air).
In both cases, microplastics can become airborne and be breathed in by anyone who happens to take a breath of air containing those microplastics.
What does the research say?
The study by that research team in Denmark we mentioned earlier illustrated this idea in a really cool way.
The researchers built a mannequin (like the kind you see in clothing stores modeling clothes) that was designed to mimic a human body, complete with a breathing system made of glass and aluminum to accurately show how microplastics affect the human respiratory tract. (They even created a heating system so that the mannequin had the same 98.6°F body temperatures as a real human!)
Then, they set the breathing mannequin to inhale indoor air at three different apartments in the city of Aarhus, Denmark, each for 24 hours straight. Here’s what they found:
- up to 4% of the total air volume of each apartment over 24 hours was contaminated with airborne microplastics – meaning that you’d inhale at least some microplastics with every breath in one of these environments
- the amount of microplastics in the air could vary widely between different areas in the same environment – one part of the environment could contain air containing up to a 77% concentration of microplastics, while other areas may have as low as a 24% concentration
- the vast majority of airborne microplastics came from synthetic polymers common in clothing, manufactured furniture, and plastic goods
- most airborne microplastics were much smaller than other airborne pollutants like skin flakes, making them more likely to get into your airways
So here’s the takeaway from this study: microplastics are everywhere, taking up anywhere from 4% to 77% of the air you breathe on a regular basis.
Of course, that’s just one study – but many other studies have corroborated these findings:
A 2012 study from a research team in London, England found concentrations of microplastics in every air sample collected from the top of a 9-story building twice a week for a month, with up to 1008 microplastics per square meter of air found in some samples.12
A 2019 study found high levels of microplastics in snowfall around the world as far as the Alps and the Arctics – even locations as remote as Greenland and Svalbard (a tiny, isolated Norwegian island close to the Arctic) contained as much as 1,760 microplastics per liter of air, illustrating that microplastics can travel throughout the upper atmosphere and get deposited anywhere in the world.13
And another 2019 study from researchers at the Université Paris-Est found that plastic fibers – the most common source of airborne microplastics – make up 60 million metric tons of the world’s plastic production, resulting in widespread health effects like lung inflammation as well as increasing your risk of infertility and cancer because of chemicals that stick to microplastic surfaces.14
How can I protect myself from microplastics air pollution?
There’s plenty you can do to protect yourself from the health impacts of microplastics pollution and reduce your own contribution of microplastics.
Buy everyday objects that are compostable or biodegradable
Plastic objects are made of synthetic components that can take thousands of years to fully break down.
Products that are labeled as compostable can be broken down in the soil, and products that are biodegradable can be consumed by microorganisms and contribute more sustainably to the ecosystem.
Look for a label that indicates that the product is compostable – almost everything you could think of buying has a biodegradable or compostable alternatives.
A 2009 study looked into the best alternatives to plastic and suggested the following that break down the fastest:15
- starch-based polymers
- plant-based silvergrass
- wood fiber
- coconut fiber
But don’t fall for all the marketing claims around plastic alternatives – while it’s good to minimize single-use plastic products like sealed bags and grocery bags, some substitutes can do more harm than good, such as:16
- “biodegradable” single-use plastic water bottles or plastic bags
- bamboo-based products like straws or silverware
- clothes or shoes made of “recovered” plastic
Consider eco-friendly, sustainable plastic alternatives
The 21st century has seen enormous growth in industries that are striving to move away from plastics as a key ingredient in their products.
Many businesses offer alternatives to plastic, like glass or stainless steel, that are actually a lot sturdier and longer-lasting than their plastic cousins – they may cost a bit more upfront, but a glass or steel plate, bowl, container, etc. can last for years without generating microplastics.
And ever heard of a B Corporation?17
These are businesses that have committed to reducing their global waste and observing fair hiring and manufacturing processes throughout the global supply chain, including the reduction of materials that generate microplastics.
Just look for a little logo that looks like a B in a circle.
Buy recycled plastic goods – and recycle them accordingly!
Cheap, disposable plastic objects are some of the biggest contributors to global microplastics pollution, since we use them once and throw them away immediately.
Think about all the single-use plastic things you use every day and multiply that by over 7 billion people – that’s more or less how much plastic waste is being throw away every day.
So only buy plastic goods that are recyclable – look for that universal recycling logo with the arrows.
And look for a number inside the little recycling logo printed or designed into the object – not all recyclable goods can be recycled in the same way.
Here’s our quick cheat sheet for recycling:
1. PET – Polyethylene Terephthalate
- Throw it in your recycling bin.
- Don’t reuse it.
- This includes water bottles, soda cans, and food packaging.
2. HDPE – High-Density Polyethylene
- Throw it in your recycling bin
- Don’t reuse it.
- Try to avoid buying products with this label.
- Includes grocery bags and packaging for products like milk and bleach.
3 – PVC – Polyvinyl Chloride
- Not recyclable, but can be re-made into other products.
- Avoid buying products with this label.
- Includes plastic wrap and many outdoor garden hoses.
4. LDPE Low-density Polyethylene
- Difficult to recycle.
- Consider reusing products with this label.
- Includes squeezable bottles and the plastic used to wrap loaves of bread.
5. PP – Polypropylene
- Throw it in your recycling bin if your local recycling program takes it.
- Used in many cereal bags, food containers, and diapers.
6. PS – Polystyrene
- Difficult to recycle.
- Avoid buying or consider reusing products with this label.
- Includes foam plates and cups as well as packing peanuts.
- This covers a huge number of plastics – some are recyclable and some are not.
- Avoid buying products with this label or reuse them often.
Use a high-performance air purifier
Microplastics particles are actually much bigger than most airborne pollutant particles like PM10 and PM2.5.
This makes them much easier to capture using a high-performance air purifier that filters out particles as small as 0.003 microns, the smallest particles that exist (and thousands of times smaller than even the tiniest microplastics).
But keep in mind that because of their size, microplastics are much heavier than typical airborne pollutants and can’t be sucked in by the small, weak motors of most cheap air purifiers.
High-performance, centrifugal fans like those used in many IQAir room air purifiers are designed to trap and collect even the largest and heaviest of these microplastics pollutants.
Microplastics are a huge problem – but all of us can do our part to decrease how dependent we are on plastic-based products.
Consumers have the power of the dollar to stop buying plastic products, especially if you have the means to sacrifice a little disposable income to buy natural, plastic-free products.
And multiplied by millions of people, buying sustainable products can literally change the world by reducing (and someday eliminating) the sheer volume of plastic that chokes the water, the air, and human bodies with pollutants and chemicals.
IQAir is a Swiss-based air quality technology company that since 1963 empowers individuals, organizations and communities to breathe cleaner air through information, collaboration and technology solutions.