Microplastics and PFAS, contributing to climate change and poor water quality

Michael Bartlett

By Michael Bartlett

Posted on July 26th, 2023

Microplastics and PFAS releases are increasing due to climate change, and the breakdown of the former is creating greenhouse gases, which, in turn, intensifies climate change. Furthermore, microplastics in surface waters can adsorb and desorb PFAS, which subsequently accumulate in marine food.

As small particles of plastic with sizes ranging from five millimeters to one nanometer with various morphologies, microplastics have been receiving increasing attention, and for good reason. Microplastics can absorb unwanted and undesirable chemicals, including PFAS, heavy metals, and pesticides. Not only can some PFAS be microplastics, such as polyvinyl fluoride and polytetrafluorethylene, but they are also used as a coating on plastic components and synthetic textiles, which subsequently break down into microplastics. The association between microplastics and PFAS has not been studied in much detail, in spite of the two being linked together in many ways.

Perhaps the most surprising fact is that a chemical from the PFAS group, polymeric PFAS, can break down into microplastics. According to the United Nations, there are 51 trillion microplastic particles in the seas, which is 500 times more than stars in our galaxy. It is important to note that, similarly to PFAS, microplastics are not a single type of chemical but a suite of contaminants. Some of the most common sources of microplastics are the following:

  • synthetic textiles
  • city dust
  • water and soda bottles
  • road markings
  • marine coatings
  • personal care products
  • engineered plastic pellets
  • plastic bags

Because of their small size, microplastics are extremely difficult to remove from drinking water. A lot of effort is needed to clean up the same amount of plastic from the environment if microplastic particles are cleaned up versus larger plastic debris. This also applies to PFAS, which pose a major challenge when it comes to removal from the water and the environment.

Landfills and wastewater treatment plants are worried about microplastics and PFAS for many reasons. While the science is developing, PFAS groundwater contamination close to landfills has been found to be over the local health-based guidance values, and microplastics have been detected in landfill leachate, which have contaminated nearby groundwater. Microplastics and PFAS are often found together in the environment, and recent studies indicate that microplastics may increase PFAS toxicity.

How microplastics and PFAS contribute to climate change

Recent studies have shown that tiny pieces of plastic are constantly lofted into the atmosphere. These particles can travel thousands of miles and impact the formation of clouds, which means they have the potential to impact temperature, rainfall, and even climate change. Plastics, including microplastics and some PFAS found in plastic, are environmentally costly to make and dispose of, they emit greenhouse gases as they decompose, and evidence shows that the tiniest bits damage zooplankton, critters that are essential in the ocean's ability to absorb carbon.

Marine PFAS contaminants can produce harmful effects on gas exchange and the ocean's carbon cycle. Consequently, it leads to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which eventually adversely impacts global warming and climate change. Moreover, marine PFAS pollutants negatively affect the following sectors:

  • the growth and photosynthesis of phytoplankton
  • the development and reproduction of zooplankton
  • the marine biological pomp
  • the carbon stock of oceans

In addition to PFAS water contamination, the production of these highly toxic chemicals is another source of climate change. Due to their longevity in the environment, PFAS are contributing to the climate crisis as their manufacturing involves the emission of potent greenhouse gases. One of America's largest PFAS manufacturing plants is the second largest polluter of the destructive greenhouse gas HCFC-22, which is roughly 5,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

HCFC-22 emissions are banned worldwide under the Montreal Protocol, a 1987 international environmental treaty, as the chemical is extremely destructive to the ozone layer. The plant of the PFAS manufacturer Daikin in Decatur, Alabama, released about 240,000 pounds of HCFC-22 in 2019, the equivalent of over one billion pounds of carbon dioxide, or what would be released from driving 125,000 cars every day for a year. Diakin's plant is one of many PFAS factories across the country, and many of the nation's top 50 HCFC-22 polluters are "forever chemical" manufacturers.

Quality legal assistance for communities whose drinking water is contaminated with PFAS

Since 1990, we have been pursuing compensation for toxic exposure victims, and we will gladly do the same for you if the drinking water of your community contains PFAS. Our skilled and experienced attorneys will offer you a free-of-charge case evaluation.

If you and your community qualify, we will help you join our PFAS Settlement Payout Program, by virtue of which you can receive a part of 3M's settlement, money that you can use for water testing, remediation, and treatment. Working with our attorneys is free unless we obtain financial compensation for you, as we operate on a contingency fee basis, so you will not risk anything by contacting us.