By Tarik Johnson
A study published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that microplastics are scattered all over the snow in the Arctic. The study says, “Microplastics (MPs) are ubiquitous, and considerable quantities prevail even in the Arctic; however, there are large knowledge gaps regarding pathways to the North.” This discovery raises troubling questions about the environmental and health implications of potential exposure to such airborne plastics.
According to Gunnar Gerdts, senior author and marine microbiologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, “I was really astonished concerning the high concentrations.” On average, the sample from the ice floes contained 1,760 microplastic particles per liter. Samples from the European regions revealed over 20 times that much.” Several million tons of plastic litter course through rivers and out to the oceans each year, where they are gradually broken down into smaller fragments through the motion of waves and ultraviolet light from the Sun.
Lead author Melanie Bergmann said, “It's readily apparent that the majority of the microplastic in the snow comes from the air.” Bergmann and her colleagues used an infrared imaging technique to analyze samples collected between 2015 and 2017 from floating ice in the Fram Strait off Greenland, visiting five floes by helicopters or dinghies. They then compared these with samples taken from from remote Swiss Alps and Bremen in northwest Germany.
The scientists called for research on the effect of airborne microplastics on human health, pointing to an earlier study that found the particles in cancerous human lung tissue. In June, another study showed people eat at least 50,000 microplastic particles per year. Millions of tons of plastic are discarded into the environment every year and are broken down into small particles and fibers that do not biodegrade. These particles, known as microplastics, have now been found everywhere from high mountains to deep oceans and can carry toxic chemicals and harmful microbes.
The team found that the smallest particles were the most abundant, but their equipment could not detect particles smaller than eleven microns. “I am convinced there are many more particles in the smaller size range beyond our detection limit,” said Bergmann. “The worry with smaller particles is, they can be taken up by a greater range of organisms and, if they reach nano-scale, they could penetrate cell membranes and translocate into organs much more easily than the larger fraction.”
Scientists who were not involved in the latest study expressed concern that supposedly pristine ecosystems such as the Arctic were contaminated. “The work is very important because it strengthens the argument for much more stringent regulations on the plastics industry and forcing the governments of the world to address the issue of plastic pollution,” said Steve Allen, a researcher at the EcoLab research institute in France. “With [microplastics] pouring into our environment, it is highly likely we will only find out the safe levels after we have exceeded them.”