Kansas needs to begin measuring how much plastic is really in the air

We've all seen plastic bags stuck in trees, but Syed Jamal says there's a different kind of plastic in the air we should worry about: microplastics, which Kansans might be breathing. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Syed Jamal teachers college-level chemistry, biology and anatomy/physiology and researches phytoremediation and cancer biology.

The plastics industry employs about 11,000 workers in Kansas, with a payroll of $578 million — that puts Kansas 24th in plastics industry employment nationally. In Lawrence, where I live, Berry Global — an Indiana-based plastic-packaging company with 290 locations around the globe — has one just north of Interstate 70.

Meanwhile, recent reports indicate that microplastics — fragments of plastics about twice the size of a pinhead — are present in the air, and might be in the air Kansans are breathing.

Readers might recognize my name from news coverage of my immigration case. Many of those stories referred to me as a chemist, a field in which I continue to teach and work. Presently, I am developing an environmentally friendly method for making copper nanoparticles. Prior to 2018, I made and studied particles smaller than microparticles — called nanoparticles — at the University of Kansas.

So I want to share my concerns about microplastics.

Plastics are all around us. Of course, when humans first synthesized plastic, it seemed like the perfect material that might solve many of our problems, but that is no longer the case. Soon after plastic became popular, scientists found microplastics in the earth’s water and soil. While the presence of microplastics in our ecosystems seemed limited at the time, recently scientists have discovered that these microplastics can even hang around in the air.

So, your lunch bag, the tires in your car, and even the wrapping on your Christmas presents could be endangering your health as well as the environment.

Microplastics form when plastics are broken into very small pieces, so airborne microplastics have probably existed since the large scale introduction of plastics in the 1950s. Car tires and brakes, nitrile gloves, and golf balls are the primary sources of airborne microplastics.

While their deleterious effects in water and soil have been recognized, we are still unsure about the dangers of microplastics floating in the air — but scientists are studying them.

The earliest studies on airborne plastics started in Paris and Cologne a few years ago. Later, high concentrations of air microparticles were found in London. Most of the microplastics were acrylic fibers from clothing, with some polystyrene and polyethylene, likely emanating from food packaging.

Airborne microplastics harm plants and animals. Research at Kansas State University has shown that plastics slow the delivery of oxygen to plant roots and increase the rate at which plants take up heavy metals, such as cadmium. Furthermore, human coronaviruses can remain on plastic for up to nine days. More studies are needed to find out if these virus-laden plastic particles can travel large distances to infect humans. Additionally, chronic exposure to airborne microplastics might increase the risks of lung cancer.

In light of the accumulating evidence demonstrating the harmful effects of microplastics on plants, animals and humans, Kansas must begin to monitor its air for their presence.

Currently, data from the Kansas Department of Health and Education does not give us any measure of airborne microplastics. However, Kansas universities have instruments such as fluorescence microscopes, Raman and infrared spectroscopy — most of us are familiar with infrared lamps that keep food hot — along with trained scientists who can help determine the amount of microplastics present in the air.

The Kansas Legislature has not demonstrated a proclivity toward environmental friendliness, so it is unlikely to enact a plastic ban or to impose a fee for plastic use. And it would also be quixotic to expect plastic tires and hydraulic brakes to disappear anytime soon.

At best, until we know more about the dangers of microplastics, we can advocate for and try to persuade local governments to take actions that limit the use of plastics in the environment.

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