Microplastic can now be traced “anywhere and everywhere,” even at remote mountaintops, as revealed by a new study. It also found winds to act as a catalyst as they can carry these microplastics elsewhere and thus help spread the pollution worldwide.
Wherever researchers are looking for, they find microplastics such as in the deepest oceans, rivers, soils and even on a pristine place like the French stretch of the Pyrenees Mountains. The scientists were shocked by the quantities of microplastic raining down from the sky everywhere.
The microplastics found in different places by other recent studies include a UNESCO world heritage site, Galápagos Islands, in farmland soils near Shanghai, China, and in rivers in the Czech Republic. Living beings like humans and other animals are consuming these tiny plastic particles via food and water. However, its potential health effects on them and ecosystems are not confirmed yet.
According to Steve Allen, at the EcoLab research institute near Toulouse leading the new work in the Pyrenees, the ubiquity of any pollution is a serious matter. “If it is going to be a problem, it is going to be a very big problem. I don’t think there is an organism on Earth that is immune to this,” he said.
Plastic is produced in 335m tonnes each year, but it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces with its prolonged degradation. The two previous studies looked for the presence of microplastic in the air in two different places like Paris, France, and Dongguan, China and discovered a steady fall of particles in both the areas.
It is for the first time, the new study, published in Nature Communications, disclosed that microplastic is falling even in the remote environments traveling across a significant distance with the help of wind. The samples collected by the team from high altitudes in the Pyrenees were far from the plastic waste source as the nearest village was 6km away, 25km from the nearest town, and 120km from the nearest city.
An average of 365 plastic particles, fibers and films were found deposited in every square meter daily. “It’s astounding and worrying that so many particles were found,” said Allen.
“It is comparable to what was found in the centre of Paris and Dongguan, and those are megacities where a lot of pollution is expected,” said Deonie Allen, also at EcoLab and part of the team. “Because we were on the top of a remote mountain, and there is no close source, there is the potential for microplastic to be anywhere and everywhere.”
In the study, the plastic particle rain level was correlated with the strength of the winds and found that the microplastics could be carried 100km in the air as per the analysis of the available data. However, they could be taken much further as modeling indicates like Saharan desert dust which is known to be carried 1000 km by the wind.
Polystyrene and polyethylene, widely used in plastic bags and single-use packaging are the most common microplastics found. As the samples were collected during winter, there is a possibility of falling more microplastic in summer because in the drier weather wind can lift particles more easily from the ground.
Microplastics were even found inside the marine mammal in a recent UK survey causing harm to their life when mistaken for food. It was traced even in tap water around the world in 2017 and also consumed by people in Europe, Japan, and Russia in last October.
The potential health impacts of microplastics are a serious concern to many scientists as they readily absorb toxic chemicals and can host harmful bacteria. Now people are even breathing the particles, some scientists suggested, and microplastics can also remain airborne as found by the new research.
“When you get down to respiratory size particles, we don’t know what those do,” said Deonie Allen. “That is a really big unknown, and we don’t want it to end up something like asbestos.” Plastic fibers have been found in human lung tissue, with those researchers suggesting they are “candidate agents contributing to the risk of lung cancer.”
Professor Stefan Krause, at the University of Birmingham, UK, and not part of the team, said the new Pyrenees research was convincing: “These findings surely highlight the need for more detailed studies.”
“Frankly we are only at the start of understanding [microplastic pollution],” he said. A project called 100 Plastic Rivers, led by Krause will present the first systematic, global microplastics analysis in freshwater ecosystems. According to him, there is a range of potential dangers from the particles affecting soils, food production and carrying toxic chemicals along with microbes far and wide.