Home Virginia Tech professor receives award to understand plastics, impact of ocean waves

Virginia Tech professor receives award to understand plastics, impact of ocean waves

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Many people head to beaches during summer months to enjoy the ocean and listen to waves crashing around them.

Did you know the same rhythmic water movement that helps some beach-goers relax could be contributing to a worrisome human health risk – the aerosolization of tiny micro- and nano-plastics?

Hosein Foroutan, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award to investigate the air-sea interaction as a source of atmospheric MNPs.

MNPs are tiny plastic fragments and fibers that have been found in virtually all ecosystems, including land, oceans, rivers, lakes, and even sea ice. According to Foroutan, they can be easily ingested or inhaled by living organisms, causing inflammation and damage to cells. They pose a major challenge to environmental management as they are difficult to detect, collect, and recycle.

“Microplastics are one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time,” said Foroutan. “Numerous studies have highlighted the adverse impact of microplastics on human and ecological health, with recent research reporting the presence of microplastics deep in human lung and blood.”

The danger of MNPs is compounded by the uncertainty surrounding their origin.

Foroutan noted that other studies have detected MNPs in atmospheric samples collected in urban, suburban, and even remote areas far from obvious sources. But how does it get there?

“Most existing research on MNPs has focused on marine environments, with oceans being considered the dead-end of plastic debris,” said Foroutan. “However, the source of airborne microplastics is not well understood, and there are critical knowledge gaps in this area. We know that MNPs have been found in marine atmospheric samples, but little is known about the processes and mechanisms that control the release and transfer of microplastics from oceans and seas into the atmosphere.”

Foroutan’s project will expand on existing research to determine if tiny MNP particles are, in fact, aerosolized by oceanic wave breaking and bubble bursting. His team will then investigate whether and how the size, shape, age, or material of the MNP particles affects the aerosolization.

The experiment will not only allow for human risk assessment, Foroutan said, but it also may shed light on the “missing plastic paradox,” which states that 99 percent of plastic litter entering the open ocean is unaccounted for.

“Plastics are a significant environmental concern. They impact human, ecological, and environmental health,” said Foroutan. “This project could have a broad impact on human health, and our unique framework hopefully will provide a new way for environmental scientists and engineers to address this growing problem.”

The CAREER award is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award for early-career faculty, encouraging them to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their organization. To satisfy the award’s requirements, CAREER recipients must find ways to integrate education and research into their projects, as well as conduct outreach.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.