Cell Towers Disguised as Trees Create Microplastic Pollution – An Environmental Nightmare – Environmental Health Trust


Fact: Trees pretending to be cell towers create microplastic pollution. 

On November 4, 2021, two friends went to the area surrounding the base of AT&T’s monopine cell tower at 1857 Hekpa Drive, and found an enormous debris field comprised of many pounds of fallen PVC plastic faux pine branches, many with faux PVC pine needles attached. Clumps of faux PVC pine needles were strewn widely around the debris field, with vast numbers of individual whole and partial PVC pine needles scattered about, often interspersed with whatever natural vegetation is in the area. The investigators demonstrate in the video the extreme brittleness of the PVC pine needles and how easily the PVC pine needles snap into tiny pieces.

Fact: Cell tower microplastic pollution will contaminate the land and water. 

“Verizon’s Monopine is a Microplastic “Time Bomb” Which will Disperse Tons of Toxic Microplastic Wastes into Stormwater Catchments and Waterways and then into Nearby Lake Tahoe” stated attorneys in a case in Lake Tahoe regarding the lack of environmental review for telecommunications towers in the region. the legal brief details the  “massive quantities of faux PVC branches and PVC pine needles that will adorn Verizon’s metallurgical monstrosity…scores of faux PVC branches, each laden with thousands of faux PVC pine needles, just waiting to break off of the monopine in the next major windstorm or snowstorm, and thereafter, fly down into a widely-dispersed debris field below the tower.”

“we explain at considerable length that Verizon’s proposed monopine presents a toxic microplastic time bomb that will quickly detonate and discharge prodigious quantities of microplastic PVC detritus over a wide dispersal zone surrounding the tower site”

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life.

Ocean plastic pollution is an urgent global problem. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ t report, “Breaking the Plastic Wave,” and accompanying paper in the journal Science, provides the results of an effort to understand how plastic production, use, and disposal contribute to this serious issue. Microplastics come from a variety of sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces. Fake cell towers create microplastic pollution because the plastic falls down, breaks into tiny pieces and contaminates the land and water.

A study  published  in the journal Science Advances presents the first assessment of microplastic accumulation  within freshwater systems, from sources of plastic pollution throughout the entire water stream. “These deposited microplastics cause ecological damage, and the large amount of deposited particles means that it will take a very long time for all of them to be washed out of our freshwater ecosystems,” stated Aaron Packman
civil and environmental engineer.

As explained by the University of Nottingham:

“Since mass production of plastic began 60 years ago, humankind has produced over eight billion metric tons of plastic. Just 9% has been recycled, another 12% incinerated. The rest, almost 80% of the plastic ever created, amasses in landfill sites or ends up in the natural environment, eventually finding its way into rivers, streams and oceans. Plastic is accumulating in our oceans at an alarming rate – the largest concentration of ocean plastic waste, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located between California and Hawaii, is estimated to measure three times the size of France, while heart-breaking images of animals entangled in plastic are shockingly common. Plastic pollution has become a very visible issue – but one of the most intractable forms of ocean pollution is harder to see: microplastics. Plastic does not biodegrade, but breaks down into ever smaller pieces, resulting in microplastics. Smaller than 5mm in dimension, much of the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste in our oceans is made up of microplastics.”

Tom Stanton, a PhD researcher in the School of Geography and Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham:

“Any wildlife in or around rivers is exposed to the threats of microplastic pollution. We know that they can be ingested by organisms as small as zooplankton. If ingested, microplastics can block the gastrointestinal tracts of organisms, or trick them into thinking they don’t need to eat, leading to starvation. Many toxic chemicals can also adhere to the surface of plastic and, if ingested, contaminated microplastics could expose organisms to high concentrations of toxins.”

Scientific Research

The peer-reviewed scientific literature based  upon studies of other freshwater bodies and marine environments is already extraordinarily  robust, and clearly demonstrates that microplastics generally, and PVC microplastics in  particular, are toxic pollutants and pose great threats to the ecosystems where they are found.  A few recent studies, just scratching the surface of the large body of peer-reviewed research on  the toxic environmental effects of PVC microplastics pollution, are described below. 

Jingyi Li, et al., “Microplastics in freshwater systems: a review on occurrences,  environmental effects, and methods for microplastics detection,” 137 Water Research 362  (June 15, 2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2017.12.056, present a comprehensive  overview of the omnipresent and abundant microplastic pollution of freshwater systems and its  toxic environmental effects. 

Bin Xia, et al., “Secondary PVC microplastics are more toxic than primary PVC  microplastics (PMP) to Oryzias melastigma embryos,” 424 Journal of Hazardous Materials

127421 (2022), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S030438942102389X,  found that irregularly-shaped partially degraded secondary microplastics (SMP) made from  PVC, which originate from the fragmentation of larger plastic items through mechanical  abrasion, photooxidation, and biological action, cause greater toxicity to fish embryos than  PMP. The authors used PVC as the test material because it is one of the most widely used  plastics and it is more easily fragmented than other thermoplastics. See Andrady, A.I.,  “Microplastics in the marine environment,” 62 Marine Pollution Bulletin 1596, 1605 (2011). Bin  Xia, et al. determined that exposure of marine medaka embryos to both PMP and SMP made of  PVC caused a range of negative effects, including changes in heart rate, morphological  abnormalities, and malformation types. Crucially, the fragmented, degraded SMP showed  greater negative effects compared to those from PMP. 

Qiongje Wang, et al., “The toxicity of virgin and UV-aged PVC microplastics on the  growth of freshwater algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii,” 749 Science of the Total Environment 141603 (December 20, 2020),  

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969720351329, found that both  virgin and aged PVC MPs have negative effects on the growth of C. reinhardtii freshwater algae,  which leads to the reduction of chlorophyll-a level in the cells. Furthermore, aged-PVC MPs  were more toxic than virgin-PVC MPs. The carbonyl groups formed on the surface and the  increased zeta potential of the aged-PVC MPs affected the interaction between the  microplastics and the algae, which increased the toxicity of aged microplastics.  

Jung Meng, et al., in “Effects of chemical and natural ageing on the release of potentially  toxic metal additives in commercial PVC microplastics,” 283 Chemosphere 131274 (November  2021), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S004565352101746X, explain  that  

various chemical substances, such as potentially toxic trace metals, are used as plastic additives  to improve the performance of polymers and extend the service life of plastic products.  However, these added trace metals are likely released from plastic into the environment when  the plastic becomes a pollutant. They studied chemical aging of commercial polyvinyl  chloride (PVC) microplastics using hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and natural aging of PVC that had  been added to an alkaline paddy soil and evaluated the release of trace metals from PVC. They  found enhanced release of trace metals from PVC. The authors concluded that chemical and  natural aging of PVC microplastics have the potential to lead to the release of copper, manganese, nickel, lead, and zinc from the commercial PVC into aquatic and terrestrial  environments. 

Boháčková, T. Cajthaml, in “Effect of PET and PVC microplastics on rainbow trout cell lines  RTgill-W1, RTG-2 and RTL-W1,” 350 Toxicology Letters Supplement, September 2021,  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S037842742100669X, found that PVC  microplastic exposure induced significant increases in Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS)  generation in three lines of rainbow trout cells. ROS can cause irreversible damage to DNA as it  oxidizes and modifies some cellular components and prevent them from performing their  original functions.

Subharthe Samandra, et al., in “Microplastic contamination of an unconfined groundwater  aquifer in Victoria, Australia,” 802 Science of the Total Environment 149727 (January 1, 2022),  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969721048026, analyzed eight of  the most commonly found microplastics, including PVC, in triplicate groundwater samples from  five sampling sites across seven capped groundwater monitoring bores in an aquifer in Victoria,  Australia. Microplastics were detected in all seven monitoring bores. Polystyrene and PVC  accounted for 59% of the total sum of all microplastics detected in the groundwater samples.  The authors concluded that the most probable avenue for the microplastics to enter into the  groundwater system was through soil permeation.  

Alessandro Balestrier, et al., in “Differential effects of microplastic exposure on anuran  tadpoles: a still underrated threat to amphibian conservation,” 303 Environmental Pollution 119137 (June 15, 2022) (available online), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2022.119137, built  upon the body of research reporting that microplastics threaten a wide variety of terrestrial,  marine, and freshwater organisms. They investigated the effects of microplastics on anuran  amphibians (frogs and toads), one of the most threatened taxa worldwide. To assess the effects  of MPs on the growth and survival of the Italian agile frog (Rana latastei) and green toad  (Bufotes balearicus), they exposed tadpoles to three different concentrations (1, 7, and  50 mg L−1) of an environmentally relevant mixture of microplastics (HPDE, PVC, PS and PES),  recording data on their activity level, weight and mortality rates. While the effects of MPs on  green toad tadpoles were negligible, Italian agile frog tadpoles were severely affected both in  terms of growth and activity level, with high mortality rates even at the lowest MP density  (1 mg L−1). Their results suggest that MP contamination of freshwater habitats may contribute  to the ongoing decline of anuran amphibians. 

Zhihao Yuan, et al., in “Ranking of potential hazards from microplastics polymers in the marine  environment,” 429 Journal of Hazardous Materials 128399 (May 5, 2022) (available online), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030438942200187X?via%3Dihub,  developed a semi-quantitative risk assessment model to rank microplastics (MPs) polymers in  terms of their potential human health concerns emerging from marine exposure pathways. MP  polymers of various kinds have different toxicity potentials when decomposed into monomers.  Also, the toxicity of MPs is influenced by the particle size distribution of MPs. The screening  strategy prioritized PUR, PVC, PAN, ABS, PMMA, SAN, TPU, UP, PET, PS, and HDPE as the top ranking polymers of concern (in descending order). PVC microplastics thus were ranked as the  second highest MP category of concern to human health because of their toxicity, their  longevity (forever), and their non-biodegradability. 

Cell Tower image: Ben P L, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons