What could be more natural than the rain? Only farmers, drought-hit gardeners, and losing cricket teams truly welcome it, but we all know, even when soaked, that it is vital to life on Earth.
So it was a shock to learn late last week that the soft, refreshing rain we praise in the hymn We Plough The Fields And Scatter is now partly made of plastic. It’s just the latest way in which our heedless pollution of the planet is coming back to bite us.
Trillions of tiny particles of the material, called microplastics, now contaminate every crevice of the Earth, from the highest mountains to the deepest marine trenches.
Published in the journal Science, study revealed that every year more than 1,000 tonnes of the particles — the equivalent of over 120 million plastic bottles — fall in rain
The rain is effectively picking up from the atmosphere an invisible cloud of microplastic particles that throngs the air all around the planet
They are increasingly being found in birds, insect, mammals and sealife, in the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. And they end up in us, too: they have even recently been found in human placentas.
Last week’s alarm was sounded by Craig Bennett, chief executive of Britain’s Wildlife Trusts, who called the increasing use of single-use plastics — which the Daily Mail has long campaigned against — a ‘huge, huge concern’. He cited a recent U.S. study which showed that more than 98 per cent of the rain and air samples collected over 14 months in 11 of the most remote parts of the country were polluted with microplastics.
Published in the journal Science, it revealed that every year more than 1,000 tonnes of the particles — the equivalent of over 120 million plastic bottles — fall on them.
Yet these areas make up just six per cent of the total national territory. Spread that around the rest of the U.S. — and the world — and the scale of the problem is, indeed, mind-blowing.
The rain is effectively picking up from the atmosphere an invisible cloud of microplastic particles that throngs the air all around the planet.
The tiny particles, too small to be seen with the naked eye, are collected by the wind as a toxic dust from the ground. They are so light that they stay aloft, to be blown often hundreds, even thousands, of miles around the globe.
Still more of them are released along with spray from the sea, and are blown back to land. And as they climb into the atmosphere, they are thought to act as nuclei around which water vapour condenses to form clouds.
Some of the dust falls back to land in dry conditions, but the rest comes down as truly hard rain.
This ‘plastic rain’ may recall the ‘acid rain’ caused by emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — most famously from power stations — that plagued Europe and North America some decades ago, but it is far more widespread and very much harder to deal with.
Some microplastics are manufactured deliberately to provide abrasion in a host of products, such as toothpaste, cleansers, cosmetics, paints and detergents.
Others come from wear and tear from produces such as tyres or synthetic fabrics: by one calculation, a typical machine clothes wash produces 700,000 microplastic fibres. But most arise from the breakdown of bigger bits of plastic that we throw away. Every single gram of the eight billion tonnes of plastic — the weight of more than a billion elephants — that the world has produced is still around.
Instead of degrading, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces; a plastic bag thrown out decades ago still remains, in countless tiny microplastic pieces circling the globe. And the more time goes by, the smaller — and the more dangerous and dispersible — the pieces get.
Microplastics have been found coating the highest Alps and the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the world’s oceans. They lie on beaches in the Maldives and in Arctic and Antarctic ice.
Up to 125 trillion tiny plastic particles are thought to pollute the world’s oceans. And more than half a million tonnes of them have built up in Chinese soils.
None of this is doing any good. The particles affect soil structure, for example, causing fewer seeds to germinate and slowing plant and crop growth.
And they have been discovered in wildlife from fish to frogs, woodlice to water fleas, and mice to mosquitoes — which have been found, on average, to contain 40 pieces of microplastic in their tiny guts.
They have reduced the size and weight of earthworms, affected the buoyancy of fish, and reduced water filtration by mussels and oysters. They have been found to decrease feeding in some species and cross the blood-brain barrier in others. And they appear to be passed down the generations in others still.
They cause physical damage to internal organs, but that is only one aspect of the danger they pose. About three-quarters of everyday plastic products contain toxic chemicals.
Among the nastiest of these are phthalates and bisphenol A. These are gender-bending chemicals which have been shown to cause disfigurement and reproduction problems.
And there is also evidence that microplastic may attract other dangerous substances, such as pesticides and bacteria, and carry them into the body.
There is no reason, of course, to assume that humans are immune from any of this. We are certainly exposed to microplastics, too.
They get into crops and build up in the food chains which we ultimately rely upon.
A study at Plymouth University found, for example, that a third of fish caught by British boats — including cod, haddock, and mackerel — contained them. They have also been found in salt, sugar, beer and chicken meat.
A survey of tap water on five continents found that 83 per cent of all the samples it took were polluted with plastic particles — and bottled water normally contains very much more of them.
And according to a study published in the journal Environment Science and Technology, people may be consuming some 50,000 microscopic particles a year in food and drink. And we can add another 24,000 or so breathed in from the air.
The great majority are almost certainly excreted; studies have found a wide range of different microplastics in human faeces. But other research indicates that some remain in the body and its organs, including the liver, kidneys and brain.
Most alarming of all, an Italian-led study reported earlier this year that they had been found on both the maternal and foetal sides of placentas, suggesting that mothers are passing them to their babies in the womb.
We simply don’t know what effect this has on us. Research into it — as acknowledged by the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific body — is in its ‘infancy’.
But Professor Sally Davies, the former chief medical officer for England, warned of potential danger several years ago. Scientists fear that microplastics in the body could affect the immune system, inflame the gut, and damage cells, increasing the risk of cancer.
So what is to be done? It is a much harder problem to deal with than acid rain. That diminished sharply as emissions were cleaned up, but the microplastic pollution cannot be recovered. It is, effectively, permanent: the plastic can’t be put back in the bottle.
The best we can do is to try to stop it getting worse. The Government has banned manufactured microplastics and the EU is to consider restrictions on their use next month. But these only address part of the problem.
Improvements in washing machines, and incentivising the use of fabrics that shed less microfibres could help, but the only real solution is to cut down the use of plastics.
New materials made from corn, seaweed, fungi, palm leaves or wood pulp can provide environmentally friendly alternatives. But the ultimate answer is to progress from our throw-away society to a ‘circular’ economy that recycles and makes better use of resources.
That should be a central objective of the Government’s professed aim to ‘build back better and greener’ from the pandemic.
Only then, perhaps, will we be able to go out, get wet, and again conclude that everything is indeed as right as rain.