Microplastics are making their way through the atmosphere leaving no stone untouched. A small pilot study published on 15 April in Nature Geoscience has for the first time discovered microplastics on remote glaciers in the French Pyrenees (1).
Plastic pollution has become a major global issue and poses a threat to the environment, marine life, and potentially human health. In 2016, an estimated 335 million tonnes of plastic was manufactured globally, the authors write. This number includes 60 million tonnes produced in Europe alone, of which over 40 per cent was used for short-term or single-use packaging.
Larger plastics slowly degrade over time, getting smaller and smaller, until eventually forming microplastics ― micro-sized plastic particles in the shape of fibres and fragments that often go undetected. These microplastics pollute the air we breathe, the food we eat and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. They have been found in farmland soils in China as well as rivers, lakes, and oceans in widespread regions as far as the Arctic, and even in the human gut (2,3). Now, evidence suggests they are reaching remote ― previously pristine ― mountaintops.
The researchers from the Laboratoire Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Environnement (EcoLab), Université d’Orléans, and Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès in France and the University of Strathclyde in the UK analysed samples collected over a five-month period at a remote site located in the mid-Pyrenees. The Bernadouze meteorological station is 1,425 m above sea level in a sparsely populated region in the south-west of France.
Owing to limited development, difficult access, and their distance from major urban centres, the Pyrenees are considered “pristine” mountain regions — there are no industrial, commercial or large-scale agricultural activities, and the area is primarily used for recreational activities such as hiking and skiing.
To assess whether microplastics are present in this remote mountain region, the scientists collected samples from two separate monitoring devices and measured total atmospheric deposition (wet and dry). Microparticle fragments, fibres, and films were found in all samples, according to the authors.
Moreover, an average of 365 plastic particles, fibres and films per square metre are deposited every day, according to the data. The most common microplastics were polystyrene and polyethylene, which are widely used in single-use packaging and plastic bags.
Only two previous studies have investigated microplastics in the air, one in Paris, France and another in Dongguan City in China (4,5). But this is the first time researchers have discovered evidence of microplastics in such a remote environment ― the nearest village was 6km away, the closest town is 25 km, and the next city is 120 km away ― and carried significant distances by the wind.
Just like Saharan desert dust carried thousands of kilometres by wind, microparticles are being spread everywhere and anywhere. The study highlights a need for further studies to assess the extent of microplastic contamination. Furthermore, the problem calls for a global effort to stem the use of plastics, clean up the environment, and prevent further damage to the planet and its inhabitants.
(1) Allen, S. et al. Atmospheric transport and deposition of microplastics in a remote mountain catchment. Nature Geoscience (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41561-019-0335-5
(2) Liu, M. et al. Microplastic and mesoplastic pollution in farmland soils in suburbs of Shanghai, China. Environmental Pollution (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2018.07.051
(3) Laurent, C. M. et al. River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans. Nature Communications (2017). DOI: 10.1038/ncomms15611
(4) Dris, R. et al. Synthetic fibers in atmospheric fallout: A source of microplastics in the environment? Marine Pollution Bulletin (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.01.006
(5) Cai, L. et al. Characteristic of microplastics in the atmospheric fallout from Dongguan city, China: preliminary research and first evidence. Environmental Science and Pollution Research (2017).