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article imageUSGS discovers it's raining plastics in the Rocky Mountains

By Karen Graham     Aug 15, 2019 in Environment
Boulder - USGS researchers analyzing rainwater samples for nitrogen pollution in the Rocky Mountains found an unanticipated addition to the rainwater they studied - Microplastic fibers, and not just a few, but a lot of them.
“I guess I expected to see mostly soil and mineral particles,” said Gregory Wetherbee, a United States Geological Survey (USGS) researcher. Instead, he found multicolored microscopic plastic fibers.
In a published report entitled "It is raining plastic," the team explains that plastics were identified in over 90 percent of the rainwater samples they took at eight different sites in the Rocky Mountains, most of which are between Denver and Boulder, Colorado.
The report raises some new questions about the amount of plastics permeating our air, water, and soil virtually everywhere on the planet. Numerous studies have documented the amounts of microplastics - including tiny, microscopic fibers, beads, and shards present in urban areas, but what is surprising is the finding of these contaminants in remote sites, reports The Guardian.
Map showing the sampling sites.
Map showing the sampling sites.
USGS
One of those remote sites, called CO98, is 3,159 meters (10,400 feet) above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, not an easy place to leave plastics. “I think the most important result that we can share with the American public is that there’s more plastic out there than meets the eye,” said Wetherbee. “It’s in the rain, it’s in the snow. It’s a part of our environment now.”
"More plastic fibers were observed in samples from urban sites than from remote, mountainous sites," the team explains in the report, according to ScienceAlert. "However, frequent observation of plastic fibers in washout samples from the remote site CO98 at Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park suggests that wet deposition of plastic is ubiquitous and not just an urban condition."
Plastics were identified on over 90 percent of the filters. The plastic materials are mostly fibers that are only visible with at least 20 times magnification. The microfibers looked suspiciously like the fibers found in synthetic material used to make clothing and come in a variety of colors, with blue being the most common, however, red, silver, purple and green were also found.
Images of microfibers at 40X magnification.
Images of microfibers at 40X magnification.
USGS
Humans are consuming at least 70,000 microplastic particles a year, and plastics are now pervasive in our environment. Our oceans have tons of the stuff. This is also not the first study to find plastics in an unexpected environment, either. A paper published in Nature Geoscience earlier this year found microplastics in the French Pyrenees.
"This study was not designed for collecting and analyzing samples for plastic particles. The results are unanticipated and opportune," the team explains.
"It is raining plastic. Better methods for sampling, identification, and quantification of plastic deposition along with an assessment of potential environmental effects are needed."
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