‘It’s Raining Plastic’: Researchers Find Microscopic Fibers in Colorado Rain Samples

Written by on May 25, 2019 in Eco-Friendly, Environment, Environmental Hazards with 0 Comments
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A lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton | Circle of Blue

When Greg Wetherbee sat in front of the microscope recently, he was looking for fragments of metals or coal, particles that might indicate the source of airborne nitrogen pollution in Rocky Mountain National Park. What caught his eye, though, were the plastics.

The U.S. Geological Survey researcher had collected rain samples from eight sites along Colorado’s Front Range. The sites are part of a national network for monitoring changes in the chemical composition of rain. Six of the sites are in the urban Boulder-to-Denver corridor. The other two are located in the mountains at higher elevation.


The monitoring network was designed to track nitrogen trends, and Wetherbee, a chemist, wanted to trace the path of airborne nitrogen that is deposited in the national park. The presence of metals or organic materials like coal particles could point to rural or urban sources of nitrogen.

He filtered the samples and then, in an inspired moment, placed the filters under a microscope, to look more closely at what else had accumulated. It was much more than he initially thought.

“It was a serendipitous result,” Wetherbee told Circle of Blue. “An opportune observation and finding.”

In 90 percent of the samples Wetherbee found a rainbow wheel of plastics, mostly fibers and mostly colored blue. Those could have been shed like crumbs from synthetic clothing. But he also found other shapes, like beads and shards. The plastics were tiny, needing magnification of 20 to 40 times to be visible and they were not dense enough to be weighed. More fibers were found in urban sites, but plastics were also spotted in samples from a site at elevation 10,300 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The findings are detailed in a report published online on May 14.

Where did the plastic fibers come from? Are they locally produced, or carried from distant states or countries? How do they affect fish and other aquatic life after the plastics precipitate out in rain? And just how much plastic is aloft? Austin Baldwin, a study co-author, would like to know.


“There are more questions than answers right now,” Baldwin, a USGS hydrologist who studies microplastics, told Circle of Blue.

Plastic pollution is ubiquitous, an unfortunate residue of contemporary consumer culture. Bottles, bags, and containers litter beaches and clog streams. Seabirds and whales eat the debris, their stomachs coming to resemble a garbage bin.

These are the most visible signs of an even deeper problem. The consequences of microplastics, those comparable to grains of salt or human hairs, are less well understood. Baldwin said there are even fewer studies to date that have examined microplastics in rain. He mentioned two studies from Paris and one from the Pyrenees. “It’s kind of exciting,” in the sense of scientific discovery, he said.

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