Microplastics Can Infiltrate Our Skies, Too!

We know that microplastics find their way into aquatic environments and are routinely eaten by the tiny organisms in our rivers and lakes. New research suggests that our aerial environments are also under threat from the plastic pollution menace.

Resulting from our love of plastic disposable products, microplastics and degraded plastic shards find their way into our waterways from products like our soaps, toothpastes and plastic bottles that have broken down over time. Microorganisms then eat these tiny bits of plastic.

As a result, those microorganisms fail to thrive and may sicken. That effect is multiplied up the food chain by larger organisms, such as fish, that then feed on smaller, now contaminated aquatic life, and the effect on the food chain grows.

Yet, what if plastic pollution didn’t just impact aquatic animals and those that feed on them but had managed to infiltrate other environments? Until now, we had thought this unlikely.

That is, until researchers at the University of Reading, publishing this month in the science journal “Biology Letters“, pointed out something obvious that many of us had overlooked: some insects start life in our waterways only to take to the air once they have reached adulthood. This begs the question: are they taking gut fulls of plastic pollution with them?

Do Developing Mosquitoes Eat Microplastics?

Using one of the most commonly-found mosquito species in the world, known as Culex pipiens, the researchers were first able to confirm what other research had suggested: that mosquito larvae which are traditionally found in rivers and lakes will readily consume microplastics. The researchers used fluorescent microplastic particles in this case, so that the microparticles could be tracked more easily as larvae developed.

The researchers then studied the larvae as they went through their development cycles before they eventually emerged in their adult forms. Of key interest was whether the plastics would endure the mosquitoes’ non-feeding pupa state. What the researchers found was that, while not all of the tiny particles of plastic the larvae consumed did carry over into the mosquito’s adult state, a significant proportion did.

Why Microplastic-Contaminated Insects Matter

As the researchers note, if that is true outside of the lab—and there is every reason to think it probably is—then mosquitoes and other river-dwelling insects are likely exposing the animals that eat them to plastic pollution we hadn’t traditionally thought of as at immediate risk. Larger insects (like dragonflies), spiders, some birds, bats and other insect eating animals are all potentially at risk.

“It is a shocking reality that plastic is contaminating almost every corner of the environment and its ecosystems,” Professor Amanda Callaghan, at the University of Reading, UK, tells the Guardian. “Much recent attention has been given to the plastics polluting our oceans, but this research reveals it is also in our skies.”

The researchers say that this study raises even more questions. We know, for example, that aquatic animals have developed various health problems due to microplastic consumption. Is the same true for mosquitoes and other insects that are carrying plastics into aerial habitats?

We don’t know yet, and many might be quick to dismiss this concern. A few less mosquitoes in the world might not immediately sound like an issue, but understanding the health impacts at this stage is important. It also might illuminate other patterns we are seeing in our wildlife.

For example, this plastic pollution creep could be one component that is leading to a loss of several bird species, as we know a failure to thrive, a curtailed appetite and failure to reach maturity have all been observed in fish species that are ingesting microplastics either directly or via the microorganisms they eat. At this stage there is no evidence the same is true in bird species, but this demonstrates how research may develop over the next few years.

What does become abundantly clear in this research, however, is just how pervasive our plastic pollution problem has become and why immediate, drastic action is needed to stop the deluge of plastic particles in our wider environment.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

36 comments

Loredana V
Loredana V3 months ago

Microplastics are a serious issue, I've noticed that some companies have decided to change, but most companies seem indifferent.

SEND
Clare O
Clare O'Beara3 months ago

try not to use plastic

SEND
Clare O
Clare O'Beara3 months ago

th

SEND
heather g
heather g3 months ago

When will we stop wiping out all species and wake up?

SEND
hELEN h
hELEN hEARFIELD3 months ago

tyfs

SEND
Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohn3 months ago

Noted

SEND
Shirley S
Shirley S3 months ago

noted

SEND
Anne Moran
Anne Moran3 months ago

Kinda like the domino effect...

SEND
Carole R
Carole R3 months ago

Thanks for the information.

SEND
Angeles M
Angeles M3 months ago

Ooooooops! Thank you

SEND