Researchers have found that the wind can carry microplastic to remote mountaintops, after a study in a very sparsely populated area of the Pyrenees in France found a high level of plastic pollution.
The new study, which was published in Nature Communications, collected samples from a pristine, high altitude catchment area in the Pyrenees, which was remote from sources of plastic waste. The nearest settlement was 6 kilometres away, the nearest town 25km and the nearest city 125km.
The scientists from the EcoLab research institute near Toulouse in South West France, concluded that microplastic can travel across significant distances through the wind and rain down on remote environments far from the original source of pollution.
They found an average of 365 plastic particles and fibres were deposited per square meter every day, comparable to the amount of plastic pollution that would be found in the centre of Paris.
“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,” said Deonie Allen, from EcoLab and part of the team that carried out the research.
The most common microplastics they found were polystyrene and polyethylene, which are widely used in plastic bags and single use packaging. They found that the strength of the wind had a direct correlation with the level of plastic particle rain and that microplastics can be carried up to at least 100km in the air, but probably much further.
Marine and Animal Life Harmed by Microplastic
Previous research has found microplastics in every marine mammal studied and that mussels are full of them. Plastic particles have also been found in tap water and in human stools in a study carried out on participants in Europe, Japan and Russia.
Scientists are extremely concerned about the potential health impacts of microplastics, which easily absorb toxic chemicals and which can host harmful bacteria. “When you get down to respiratory size particles, we don’t know what those do. That is a really big unknown, and we don’t want it to end up something like asbestos,” said Allen.
Plastic for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner
A previous study published last year by the Environment Agency Vienna, found microplastic in human excreta, suggesting that tiny plastic particles are widespread in the human food chain.
Up to nine different types of plastic were found in particles ranging in size from 50 to 500 micrometres in the stools of eight people from Europe, Japan and Russia. Scientists estimated from this study that more than 50% of the world’s population likely have plastic in their excrement.
Previous studies have found plastic in the guts of fish and embedded in insects and in the bloodstream of birds.
“This is the first study of its kind and confirms what we have long suspected, that plastics ultimately reach the human gut. Of particular concern is what this means to us, and especially patients with gastrointestinal diseases,” Philipp Schwabl, a researcher at the Medical University of Vienna, who led the study, told the Guardian.
Scientists have found that the smallest microplastics can enter the bloodstream, the lymphatic system and the liver and that they could affect the digestive systems immune response. But they know little about the effects of microplastics on human health once they enter the body.
“Now that we have the first evidence for microplastics inside humans, we need further research to understand what this means for human health,” said Schwabl.
The use of plastic is so prevalent in modern life that removing it completely from the food chain would be close to impossible, but steps are now beginning to be taken to try and limit plastic pollution.
Several nations, including Dominica in the Eastern Caribbean, have banned the use of plastic bags entirely and proposals are under discussion in some countries to ban plastic straws and cotton buds, which contain microplastics. But critics say that such measures are inadequate given the problem has now reached epic proportions.