The Plastic Menace – Part II | weatherology°
By: Meteorologist Michael Karow
Updated: Oct 1st 2019

The Plastic Menace – Part II

        It’s not just in highly-populated, urban areas where plastic pollution is a problem. As presented in the original article on The Plastic Menace, even remote, uninhabited islands in the Indian Ocean were found to have a significant accumulation of man-made plastic debris that had been transported there by ocean currents. Now a study from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research has uncovered microplastic pollution in seemingly pristine snow in the Arctic, Swiss Alps, as well as other northern European locations. This evidence suggests that microplastic particles are readily transported by the atmosphere and fall to the ground during snowfall.

         As part of the study, samples of snow were taken at 22 locations, taking care to prevent outside contamination of the samples by the sample takers. The snow was then melted down and passed through a filter. The filter was then examined with an infrared microscope which uses special software to automatically count the pieces of debris and determine their composition using a spectrometer. The size range of most of the microplastic debris was similar to that of the thickness of a human hair. In the Arctic sites, nitrile rubber, acrylates, and paint were the most common types of debris found, with nitrile rubber being used in hoses and gaskets, and plastic-containing paint used to coat buildings, ships, and offshore oil rigs, among others. As far as the number of plastic pollutants found, the higher concentrations were measured in the northern European sites with as many as 154,000 particles per liter in a Bavarian sample. However, even snow from an Arctic sample contained as many as 14,400 particles per liter.

        The prevalence of microplastic debris even at remote sites, illustrates just how readily the tiniest of plastics get caught up in the atmosphere and transported large distances. As noted by the authors of this study, relatively little research has been done on the effects that airborne microplastics can have on the human body, though some recent studies have shown a link to increased risks for lung cancer in non-smokers, as well as asthma.

snow sampling regions Bergmann
Overview map of the three main sampling regions - [Bergmann, M et al., 2019]
Polyvinyl chloride fiber Bergmann
Polyvinyl chloride fiber from Ice Floe 8 (length, 956 μm) - [Bergmann, M et al., 2019]
Polypropylene particle Bergmann
Polypropylene particle from Heligoland (diameter, 256 μm) - [Bergmann, M et al., 2019]