THERE is an emerging menace in the air. It's called microplastics — minute bits of plastic debris that result from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste.

Microplastics, or MPs, are smaller than 5 millimeters, according to the generally accepted classification of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Microplastics are a relatively new area of concern; very little is known about their impact on the environment and human health. But the research that is available heavily suggests that MPs loom as a threat that could be as frightful as global warming.

MPs are the offshoot of our overdependence on plastic products and utter failure to properly dispose of plastic waste. The presence of MPs in the oceans is already well-documented. Every year, tons of plastic debris wash ashore, including MPs. Heavy concentrations of microplastics have also turned up in the stomachs of fishes, turtles and other marine life.

The presence of MPs in the air is only beginning to be studied, but the early results are worrying. More than 60 million metric tons of plastic fibers were produced in 2016. These fibers are the basic component in manufacturing not only everyday plastic items like bags, bottles and styrofoam boxes but polyester clothing as well. The annual production of plastic textile fibers is rising by more than 6 percent per year, or 60 million metric tons, making up 16 percent of world plastic production.

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The volume of disposable plastic waste spiked during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic as demand for vinyl gloves, face masks, plastic ventilator components, visors, gowns and bags grew.

In China alone, 14.8 million masks were being produced daily in 2020. Disposing of these throwaway items became an environmental concern.

Most of the world's plastic waste is properly disposed of or recycled. But according to one study, as much as 18 percent linger in the environment.

"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," said one researcher. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."

The Philippines is the world's third biggest contributor of plastic marine debris. The Tañon Strait, the country's largest marine reserve located between Cebu and Negros islands, has been found to have a relatively high microplastic content.

The country is also the global leader in dumping riverine plastic into the ocean.

Now a recently published study indicates that airborne MPs have blanketed Metro Manila.

The study, conducted in 2021 by students from Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, collected air samples from 17 street stations in Metro Manila. The cities of Mandaluyong and Muntinlupa yielded the biggest volume of microplastics, and Malabon, the smallest.

Pollution from clothing

One particularly interesting finding is that almost 90 percent of the sampled air contained polyester microplastic, "so we can infer that they came from clothing," the study team's leader Rodolfo Romarate 2nd said.

"Fashion itself is causing microplastic pollution," Romarate noted. "When you wash the clothes, that could lead to microplastic pollution in water. When you dry it, that could lead to microplastic pollution in the air."

The study also found MPs from the usual sources — water bottles, styrofoam and plastic packaging.

The team also raised the possibility that the alarming volume of airborne microplastics could become a public health concern. When inhaled, MPs could give bacteria and viruses a free ride into human bodies when they are inhaled.

There are no definitive studies that microplastics have toxic effects on human health, but many researchers acknowledge that the risk is there.

"Our relative ignorance of the consequences despite rapidly rising plastic concentrations in our environment highlights the importance of improving plastic waste management or, indeed, capturing ocean plastics and removing them from the system," one study rued.

This early, the government needs to take a close look at the environmental and health threats that MPs pose. It may have to tighten its policies on plastic waste disposal and single-use plastic and come up with a more effective holistic approach to plastic pollution.

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