'It is raining plastic': Microplastics found in U.S. rainwater

The startling discovery comes from researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Microplastics found in U.S. rainwater samples.

Microplastics found in U.S. rainwater samples.

Credit: USGS.
  • About 90 percent of rainwater samples collected from the Denver-Boulder area of Colorado contained microplastics.
  • Researchers aren't exactly sure how the plastic ended up in the rainwater.
  • Microplastics have invaded nearly every part of the environment, but scientists still aren't sure how these plastic bits might be affecting human health.



Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) were recently analyzing Colorado rainwater samples when they discovered something unexpected: microplastics, the tiny plastic bits (5 millimeters or smaller) that pollute the environment.

In a new report, bluntly titled "It is raining plastic", USGS researchers describe how they found plastic in about 90 percent of their rainwater samples, which were obtained from six sites in the Denver-Boulder area.

"The plastic materials are mostly fibers that are only visible with magnification (~40X)," they wrote in the report. "Fibers were present in a variety of colors; the most frequently observed color was blue followed by red > silver > purple > green > yellow > other colors. Plastic particles such as beads and shards were also observed with magnification."

The researchers confirmed that the fibers, beads, and shards in the rainwater were microplastics, but they aren't sure how the material got there.

"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," one of the researchers and USGS research chemist Gregory Wetherbee told The Guardian. "It's in the rain, it's in the snow. It's a part of our environment now."

Scientists still have much to learn about the extent of microplastics pollution, but the available evidence suggests that plastic has made its way into nearly every part of the environment, from the atmosphere to the deep ocean, as well as in marine life and birds. Alarmingly, scientists have also found microplastics in human stool, and plastic fibers in human lungs.

"Plastic fibers also break off your clothes every time you wash them," Sherri Mason, a microplastics researcher and sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend, told The Guardian, adding that all plastic items might be shedding tiny particles. "And then those particles get incorporated into water droplets when it rains."

Credit: USGS.

How are microplastics affecting our health? It's hard to say, considering we're all ingesting a number of pollutants from birth, and there's little research showing exactly how plastics affect the human body over time. In experiments on mice, however, microplastics were found to increase levels of oxidative stress molecules in the liver. A separate 2018 study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, described how plastic contains additives that act as endocrine disruptors, and when microplastics are fed to mice, these disruptors significantly interfered with the microbiome.

"Mice aren't humans, but we do know that when the microbiome is disrupted in humans it leads to many diseases, including type 2 diabetes and obesity," Erin Pitkethly, RPh, a registered pharmacist and certified nutritionist with Robinsong Health in Ontario, Canada, told LIVESTRONG.com.

It's likely impossible to totally avoid consuming microplastics, but two ways you might limit exposure include not eating shellfish (or only eating high-quality shellfish) and avoiding plastic food containers, which can leak plastic particles into food.

Study: Unattractive people far overestimate their looks

The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.

Sex & Relationships
  • Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
  • The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness, while attractive people underrate their looks.
  • Why this happens is unclear, but it doesn't seem to be due to a general inability to judge attractiveness.
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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

Videos
  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

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Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

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