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Scripps Oceanography researcher seeks La Jolla Shores support to study microplastics in the air

Dimitri Deheyn, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, studies microplastics.
Dimitri Deheyn, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, studies microplastics and is concerned about those that are airborne.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The La Jolla Shores Association is answering a call for support from a Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher in his effort to acquire machines that measure microplastics in the air people breathe.

Dimitri Deheyn, a professor at the La Jolla institute who is studying plastics pollution, led a presentation during the association’s Jan. 13 meeting on what he called a “proposal of interest to the habitants of La Jolla” and called for further monitoring of airborne microplastics.

For the record:

1:29 PM, Jan. 19, 2021This article was updated to correct the spelling of Dorie DeFranco’s first name.

Microplastics, Deheyn said, are often found in the ocean from everyday items like straws. Such items break down over a time period “difficult to assess,” anywhere from five to 2,000 years, he said.

“These items end up being small microplastics,” he said, “which are physically in diameter 1 to 100 microns … about a fifth of the diameter of your hair,” making them hard to see, detect and quantify.

To aid the study of microplastics in the air, Deheyn said he’d like to purchase air sampler devices for Scripps Oceanography. An air sampler is “like a vacuum pump that will physically suck up the air,” collecting particles that can be counted under a microscope and identified as plastic, as opposed to a natural particle.

He said the devices are “very important so we can have a first attempt at knowing when you breathe, are you breathing a lot of plastic relative to other places.”

Deheyn said he hopes to partner with the La Jolla Shores Association on the purchase of the air samplers, which cost $8,000 to $10,000 each. “The goal is to have at least one day a week of full monitoring of the quality of the air,” he said.

LJSA board member Andi Andreae later told the La Jolla Light that he has placed an order for an air sampler to be used in collaboration with Deheyn to investigate airborne microplastics. Andreae said the sampler is being paid for from research funds of the Max Planck Society, a German research organization.

LJSA President Janie Emerson told the Light that “we support and applaud [Deheyn’s] efforts and we will look for funding,” perhaps from the community through the organization’s website. She said LJSA “will be looking into” a vote later to financially support the effort.

A report by researchers from Brazil and the Netherlands published recently on the website of the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the U.S. National Library of Medicine states, “There is an increasing awareness that plastic fragments are dispersed in the air and can be inhaled by humans, which may cause adverse effects on the respiratory system and on other systems.” It adds that “it is unclear to what extent exposure to airborne MPs [microplastics] is a threat to public health” and that “new avenues of research are needed to address the plastic pollution challenge.”

Deheyn’s studies focus on what he called “primary microplastics,” as opposed to “secondary microplastics,” which are broken down from plastic bottles and other sources.

“Primary microplastics are the microplastics that are made small to begin with and that you might not be aware of,” he said. Examples are cosmetics that use microbeads, tiny threads from synthetic clothing and small beads used in injections to deliver medicines. “We are exposed to microplastics whether we want it or not.”

Microplastics are carried by winds and “are all over the place,” including the ocean, Deheyn said.

“We eat microplastics for sure. We know that more than 94 percent of tap water contains microfibers and microplastics in the United States,” he said.

Microplastics also are found in bottled water. “When they collect the water, they pipe it with PVC pipes and package it with different plastic items,” he said.

Deheyn said California has begun implementing policies to regulate microplastics in drinking water, but “we breathe them … there is not much [legislation] yet about what we breathe in the air.”

LJSA board member Mary Coakley Munk said she asked Deheyn to make his presentation, as “all of us are extremely concerned about the air quality from the fires in the park,” referring to recent efforts to limit beach fires at The Shores.

Many area residents and community group members have voiced concerns about pollution from wood and charcoal beach fires and about safety hazards from hot coals being buried in the sand.

Coakley Munk said she hoped Deheyn’s work would help a joint committee of LJSA and La Jolla Parks & Beaches members make a case to the city of San Diego regarding limits on beach fires, saying his findings might show the pollution that beach fires cause and “identify exactly what those [airborne] particles are.”

The La Jolla Parks & Beaches advisory group is lending its support to the Barber Tract Neighborhood Association in its quest to eliminate wood and charcoal fires on beaches in its area.

In an update on the beach fires issue, subcommittee member Dorie DeFranco, a Barber Tract resident, said the committee met with representatives of City Council members Joe LaCava and Jennifer Campbell — who respectively represent District 1, which includes La Jolla, and District 2, which includes the beach communities from Pacific Beach to Point Loma.

DeFranco said Campbell’s office would be gathering input from District 2 communities on a possible limit on beach fires and then convene with LaCava’s office to come up with a position statement from all the beach areas.

DeFranco said the committee is considering a proposal to allow only propane-fueled fires, which would “still allow people to have the beach experience but possibly eliminate all these health issues that affect us from the smoke ... the pollution and the debris on the beach and the beach being left in a condition that’s not sanitary.”

“We have some work ahead of us,” she said. ◆