Microplastics that get seemingly everywhere in the world’s water supply also help dangerous viruses spread by giving them a free ride for days, new research shows.
“We found that viruses can attach to microplastics and that allows them to survive in the water for three days, possibly longer," said Richard Quilliam of the U.K. Stirling University in The Guardian.
Earlier studies were conducted in sterile settings. This was the first research into how viruses act in the real world, Quilliam said.
"We weren't sure how well viruses could survive by 'hitchhiking' on plastic in the environment, but they do survive and they do remain infectious," he said.
The research was published in the journal Environmental Pollution. The viruses – which cause vomiting and diarrhea -- remain infectious in water by latching onto the tiny plastic bits.
Microplastics are smaller than 5mm long. Plastic pollution spreads them in freshwater and seawater alike, with 11 million metric tons of plastic waste dumped into the oceans each year. Larger pieces break down into microplastic particles, which then get into the air and water supply.
One German study found them in the blood and urine of almost 100 percent of children who were tested.
The viruses that hopped rides on microplastic were more stable than those left on their own in the water, surviving up to three days longer. Binding to the microplastic kept the viruses safe from ultraviolet light and other elements that could kill them.
More microplastics being present provided greater protection to the viruses.