14
Apr
2019

Pristine mountains are being littered with microplastics from the air

A picture of a mountain

Tiny pieces of plastic travel to remote locations in the air

imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo

By Donna Lu

Microplastics end up in our oceans, but we now know they also travel kilometres through the air.

Deonie Allen at research centre EcoLab in France and Steve Allen at the University of Strathclyde in the UK and colleagues have found microplastics in a remote area of the Pyrenees mountains. The local population there is small, suggesting that particles were transported in the air from more populous areas at least 95 kilometres away.

Sampling the area over five months, the team calculated that the microplastics were depositing at a rate of 365 particles per square metre per day.

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While the exact sources of these particles were unknown, the likely culprit is single-use plastic packaging, such as polystyrene and the PET used in plastic bottles, says Steve Allen.

Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic waste in size that include plastic fragments, film and fibre debris, which are produced as plastic slowly degrades.

Fibres up to 750 micrometres long and fragments up to 300 micrometres in diameter were included in the study. Some of the fibres were 10 micrometres in diameter, a size that can be inhaled by people.

Little is known about whether or how microplastic affects human health. “The fact that it can travel in the air is very worrying,” says Steve Allen. “It’s likely to be basically everywhere.”

We need a global approach to managing single-use plastic, says Deonie Allen.

The maximum distance microplastics can travel is still unclear, but previous research has found that larger dust particles have travelled 3500 kilometres in the air across the Atlantic Ocean. It is likely that smaller microplastic particles can do the same.

Journal reference: Nature Geoscience, DOI: 10.1038/s41561-019-0335-5

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