Ambassadors from the 175 countries gathering in Paris for talks on a plastic agreement on Monday may want to pack an umbrella, but not because of the rain.
The French capital will also be flooded during the five-day talks with billions of tiny particles that have fallen from the sky, according to a forecast of plastic pollution.
The forecasted rainfall will be between 40 and 48 kilograms (88 and 106 pounds) of floating plastic and covering Paris every 24 hours, the scientists involved told AFP.
If the weather brings a lot of rain, the “plastic fall” can increase up to ten.
“This should increase the interest of the negotiators,” said Marcus Gover, head of plastics research at the Minderoo Foundation in Perth, Australia.
“Small pieces of plastic fall into the environment and these toxic substances end up in our bodies, where they harm our health.”
Concern about the impact of plastics on the environment and human health has grown in recent years as has the amount of research showing its ubiquity and persistence.
In nature, microplastics of many sizes – by definition, less than 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) in diameter – have been found in ice near the North Pole and inside fish swimming in the deepest, darkest oceans.
Plastic waste is estimated to kill more than one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, and blue whales that filter ingest up to 10 million pieces of microplastic each day.
‘Heads in the Sand’
The equivalent of a garbage truck’s worth of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean every minute.
In humans, small amounts of plastic have been found in blood, breast milk, and the placenta.
Animal experiments have linked chemicals in microplastics to an increased risk of cancer, reproductive problems, and DNA mutations, but data on human effects are still lacking.
“In our bodies, the plastics we have to worry about the most are the ones between 10 nanometers and 1 micrometer,” said pediatrician Christos Symeonides, a researcher at the Murdoch Children’s Research Hospital and the Minderoo Foundation.
“They are the ones that can pass through our membranes into muscles, including the brain barrier,” he told AFP.
“We are now pulling our heads out of the sand when it comes to the health risks of microplastics.”
The forecast for Paris next week is limited to larger particles, mainly fibers made up to 50 microns in length.
In fact, a human hair is about 80 microns (or 80,000 nanometers) across.
The method developed by Minderoo Foundation researchers does not measure plastic falling in the air in real time.
Instead, it was based on a study conducted in Paris from 2015 that collected samples from several locations throughout the year and filtered them in a laboratory.
This pioneering work by French scientists found that the small particles of plastic that fall in the Paris area of 2,500 kilometers (965-square-mile) are nylon and polyester, probably from clothes.
Small pieces of wire were thrown away from the tires, which are mostly thrown away when cars break down.
Over the course of a year, 10 tons of plastic fibers end up in the Paris area, it is estimated.
The amount of “plastic fall” can increase during rainfall.
Measurements taken by other groups have replicated these findings in about a dozen cities around the world.
Microplastics that hit the ground can still be absorbed or absorbed when shaken, for example, on a windy day.
Last year, 175 countries agreed to create a binding agreement to end plastic pollution, with the goal of completing negotiations by 2024.
No major breakthroughs are expected in technical talks from Monday, but key points to be discussed include a global ban on single-use plastic products, a “polluter pay” system, and a tax on the production of new or “virgin” plastic.
These policies – even if fully implemented – may not be enough to reduce consumption, according to experts and green groups who want a cap on plastic production.
At current rates, annual production of fossil-based plastics will nearly triple by 2060 to 1.2 billion tons, while waste will exceed 1 billion tons, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
© Agence France-Presse