Microplastics Can Travel Through the Air to Pollute the Remotest Parts of Earth

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Microplastics have been found in the remotest parts of our planet. Getty Images

Tiny pieces of plastic can travel up to 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, through the air, according to scientists who studied pollution in a remote area in the mountains of France.

Microplastics are tiny pieces of the material measuring between 5 milimeters, or 0.20 inches, 1 micrometer, or 1,000 times smaller than a millimeter.

The authors of the study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, described plastic as "one of this generation's key environmental challenges," and pointed to the fact that manufacturers pumped out some 335 million tons of the stuff in 2016.

Past research has shown how microplastics populate bodies of water, sailing through rivers to contaminate oceans. In a study published earlier this year, for example, scientists looking for microplastics in the digestive systems of sea animals stranded off the U.K. coast found the material in every creature they tested.

For the new study, a separate team of researchers headed to the Bernadouze meteorological station in a "remote, pristine" area of the French Pyrenees. The area is barely populated and mostly used by visitors hiking, skiing or for scientific research. There is no nearby industrial, commercial or agricultural infrastructure.

Over a period of five months during the winter period of 2017 to 2018, they collected air samples from the location.

The team wanted to answer whether the plastic would be present in the air at this remote locale, and also what type they it might discover. Polystyrene and polyethylene were the most commonly found plastics. These are widely used in single-use products, such as food containers. Polypropylene, which is found in some textiles, made up 18 percent of the findings.

Deonie Allen, an environmental atmospheric scientist and study co-author, told Newsweek: "This is the first study that has shown microplastics are atmospherically transported."

"We expected to find some microplastic particles but not as many as we found. The finding of microplastic particles in this remote mountain area reinforces [the fact] that plastic pollution is not just a city, river or sea problem."

Steve Allen, a Ph.D. candidate and environmental atmospheric scientist at the University of Strathclyde, told Newsweek: "Now we need to do detailed and international research to identify how far this atmospherically transported pollutant moves and where it has been transported to."

Allen continued: "The plastic waste that is mismanaged on a daily basis is not just affecting individual people or communities living in cities, but potentially moving long distances into the environment. Plastic pollution is in the sea, rivers soils, and this study shows it to be in the atmosphere at the study site.

"The actions of individuals will have an impact on how much plastic is released into our environment. It is also important that we remember that governments will do nothing unless we demand it of them."

Brendan Godley, professor of conservation science at the University of Exeter, told Newsweek that the study "was geographically restricted but I am sure other studies will find similar results."

He explained it was "part of a wider body of recent work that highlights that microplastics are widely dispersed across the planet in soils, in freshwater and even at the poles."

Stephanie Wright, a research fellow at the MRC-PHE Center for Environment and Health, King's College London, commented: "We know microplastics deposit out of the atmosphere in megacities. This has not previously been shown for a pristine environment, however, it is unsurprising given their low density and diffuse nature.

"The back-trajectory findings (where the material has come from) should, however, be inferred with caution due to the small sample size. Moreover, since we know very little of the source emissions of microplastics to the atmosphere, it is difficult to conclude exactly how far they have traveled.

"These findings do suggest that microplastics are omnipresent and even the most pristine environments may be susceptible to contamination. Microplastics are persistent, and hence will accumulate in the environment over time, unless emissions are reduced."

Alice Horton, ecotoxicologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: "Concentrations found in this study were comparable to those found within urban areas, which highlights that with respect to microplastics, many remote areas may not be as pristine as assumed, a fact which warrants further research."

This article has been updated with comment from Brendan Godley.