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Purdue University researchers say common construction practice is major source of nanoplastic pollut

Plumes coming off of a construction site where pipe repairs are taking place.
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Purdue University
Plumes coming off of a construction site where pipe repairs are taking place.

Researchers at Purdue University say a common construction practice used across the country is a major source of nanoplastic pollution.

Experts have expressed growing concern about the longer-term health and environmental impacts of micro and nanoplastic pollution.

Nano and microplastics are minuscule plastic particles that have been found all over the world, and are likely to stay in the environment nearly indefinitely.

A new study has found that a common form of pipe repair used across the country shoots plumes full of nanoplastics up into the air.

Andrew Whelton is a professor of civil and environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University and an author on the study. He said the plumes pose a health risk - especially to the workers who could inhale them.

“This is happening across the country, and what needs to happen is the waste needs to be regulated,” he said.

Whelton said the discovery was particularly concerning because it was not uncommon to see people use the plumes in order to get warm during cold months. He said the reason the method is so widespread is that it’s both inexpensive and fast.

Whelton also said the good news is that the pollution is 100% solvable - either by requiring that the plumes are captured instead of shot into the atmosphere, or by making changes to the materials used in the process.

“That’s the issue here,” he said. “There’s technologies and approaches to fix the issue that are fairly straightforward, but nothing is changing because there is no driving force to cause it to change.”

Whelton said the industry is unlikely to change on its own.

“From industry competitiveness, if there are ten companies that don’t capture, they all don’t want to capture,” he said. “...There needs to be some kind of driver in enforcement for air pollution, which there isn’t, because the U.S. EPA hasn’t actually stepped up and exerted their authority to protect public health under the Clean Air Act here.”

Alexander Laskin is a professor of Analytical Chemistry at Purdue and another study author. He noted that the pollution does not immediately poison a person.

“They tend to accumulate. Accumulate in the body, in humans, in animals, everywhere,” he said. “These are more of the chronic toxicity concerns than immediate toxicity.”

Laskin also noted the research is significant because it finds a direct source for nanoplastics. Previously, the scientific community largely believed nanoplastics were produced exclusively through the withering and degradation of larger microplastics.

“Through the technology, it is immediately dumped into the atmosphere right away,” he said.

Whelton and Laskin say they are hopeful their work can draw attention to the problem.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Andrew Whelton's last name.

Copyright 2022 WBAA News

Benjamin Thorp