Air Clean Up

  • How Does Plastic Pollute the Air?

How Does Plastic Pollute the Air?

Oct 02 2019 Read 1482 Times

The problem of microplastics polluting our oceans, rivers and waterways is a well-documented one. However, new research from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany has revealed that these incredibly dangerous plastic participles are found in alarming concentrations in the atmosphere as well, even in remote regions of the world.

After analysing snow samples taken from 22 locations around the globe, including isolated sites in the Arctic Circle and at the top of the Alps, the scientists found incontrovertible evidence of significant plastic pollution in the air. Highlighting the unknown risks this could have on human and animal health, the authors have called for further research into plastic air pollution and, more specifically, its effects on the human body.

Plastic pollution pervading everywhere

Led by Dr Melanie Bergmann, the team collected snow samples from 22 different places around the world, including on Arctic ice floes, at Svalbard (a Norwegian archipelago that is one of the planet’s northernmost inhabited areas, located well north of the Arctic Circle), in the German city of Bremen and from the tops of the Alps in Austria and Germany.

Concerningly, they found that concentrations of microplastics on floes of ice between Svalbard and Greenland reached an average of 1,760 particles per litre, while that figure was as high as 24,600 among the European locations tested. While some of this pollution may have been transported by oceanic currents, the prevalence of microplastics in snow samples points to the fact that airborne contamination is a significant problem.

The known unknowns

An even more troubling implication of the study is the idea that the pollution uncovered represents just the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended), given that the monitoring equipment used by Dr Bergmann’s team was not capable of detecting particles smaller than 11 microns in diameter. These microscopic particles could prove an even greater threat to plant and animal life than science currently understands.

“I am convinced there are many more particles in the smaller size range beyond our detection limit,” explained Dr 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.”

More research needed

Dr Bergmann is adamant that the frightening scale of the situation revealed by her studies demands further investigation among the scientific community, especially regarding the effect of microplastics on the human body. “We really need research on the human health aspect. There are so many studies being published now on microplastics but nothing on human health, and that is really strange in my opinion.”

To date, the recent research is one of only a handful of studies looking into airborne plastic pollution. Another paper published earlier this year found substantial amounts of microplastic in the air in the Pyrenees, while a French study and a Chinese study complete the body of research on the topic. Meanwhile, scientists are still searching for ways to combat the problem, with the unusual combination of forensic science and artificial intelligence one possible avenue of remediation.

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