Matt Simon covers cannabis, robots, and climate science for WIRED.The big question is, where are these microplastic particles coming from? The researchers couldn’t nail down an exact location, but they reckon the particles are blowing in from the cities of Europe. “Snow ‘scavenges’ the particles in the air and brings them down,” says marine ecologist Melanie Bergmann of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, lead author of a new paper in Science Advances. There’s precedent here too: Previous work has shown that pollen, which is about the same size as these microplastic particles, also travels great distances north into the Arctic.The types of plastics Bergmann and her colleagues found may lend some clues as to their origins—a lot of rubber and polymer varnish in particular. “That kind of surprised us, because how do varnish particles make it into the air and so far north?” Bergmann asks. Ships are coated with varnish to ward off fouling organisms, but if was coming from them, you’d expect the particles to show up in water, not in snow samples. “But then on land you have all the cars basically painted with varnish, which often contains polymer. Many buildings nowadays are also painted with varnish. Offshore platforms have these, so it's actually quite a widespread thing.”
Also, nearly all of the plastic that researchers think enters the environment goes missing. “At the moment, that's a big question in this field of research,” says Bergmann. “Where's all the plastic? Because it's estimated 8 million tons of plastic is being carried into the ocean every year, and we've only found about 1 percent of it.”A bit of caution with this research: The scientists found quite a bit of variability in the concentrations of microplastic particles they found in the snow samples. So that sample from Bavaria that tallied 150,000 particles, they took near a road—the other two Bavarian samples were closer to 5,000 particles. And the ice floe sample of 14,000 particles stands in contrast to the other ice floe samples, which tallied very few or even zero particles. This raises the specter of contamination by their sampling equipment—though the researchers argue that none of this equipment contained varnish, the main polymer they found in the snow samples.
What effect all this plastic is having is largely unknown. There’s very little data on how microplastics might be affecting organisms and even whole ecosystems. It’s hard to do controlled microplastic studies in the ocean—you can’t just dump the material in the sea and watch what happens. Even if that were ethical, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bit of ocean that isn’t already dosed with microplastic to act as your control.
"It's estimated 8 million tons of plastic is being carried into the ocean every year, and we've only found about 1 percent of it." —marine ecologist Melanie BergmannIn the lab, researchers can expose organisms to microplastic, sure, and show for instance how chemicals leaching from plastic might inhibit the growth of the bacteria that sequester CO2 and pump oxygen into the atmosphere. “But they use really high concentrations to be able to show mechanisms where things accumulate in organisms,” says Bergmann, the lead author on the new paper. “Luckily we haven't reached these really high concentrations in the Arctic so far.” It’s worth noting, though, that up in Canada, researchers may soon start using remote lakes to do microplastic pollution studies , which could yield pivotal insights into how the stuff might be affecting ecosystems.
We need that data, and we need it fast. Half the plastics ever produced have been made in the last 15 years, and that plastic mania shows no sign of abating. That could have serious implications for human health (we are, after all, readily breathing and ingesting the particles), not to mention the health of an entire planet that’s been poisoned with microplastic.“We're madly trying to find out what is safe, how much the environment can handle,” says Steve Allen. “But in reality, we're probably going to reach that well before we know what it is.”
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