Microplastic contamination has been discovered in the snow near the top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. With plastic debris revealed in 2018 at the deepest point on Earth, the Mariana Trench, it is now clear that humanity’s garbage has polluted the entire planet.
The tiny plastic fibers were found a few hundred meters from the top of the 8,850-meter mountain, in a location known as the balcony. Microplastics were found in all snow samples collected at 11 sites on Everest, ranging from 5,300 meters to 8,440 meters in height.
The highest concentrations of microplastics were found around Base Camp, where climbers and hikers spend most of their time. The fibers most likely came from the clothing, tents and ropes used by mountaineers, the scientists said. Other recent discoveries of microplastic contamination in remote parts of the Swiss Alps and the French Pyrenees indicate that the particles can also be carried by the wind from further afield.
“I was really surprised to find microplastics in every snow sample I analyzed,” said Imogen Napper of the University of Plymouth, who led the new research. “Mount Everest is a place that I have always considered remote and pristine. Knowing that we are polluting near the top of the highest mountain is a real eye-opener. “
“With microplastics so ubiquitous in our environment, it is time to focus on the right environmental solutions,” he said. “We need to protect and care for our planet.”
Reducing, reusing and recycling larger items of plastic waste is important, Napper said, as they can break down into microplastics when disposed of in the environment. But many microplastics are shed from clothing made from synthetic fabrics, and she said a focus was needed on better fabrics, as well as using natural fibers like cotton where possible.
Millions of tons of plastic are lost to the environment each year. It can contain toxic additives and carry harmful microbes and is known to harm wildlife that mistakes it for food.
People also consume and breathe microplastics through food and water, although the impact on health is not yet known.
There have been longstanding concerns about litter on Everest, which was climbed by at least 880 people in 2019. But the new study is the first to assess contamination by microplastics, which is less than 5mm in size and therefore too small to collect.
The study, published in One Earth magazine, analyzed samples collected by a National Geographic Expedition in 2019. Scientists found an average of 30 microplastic particles per liter of water in snow samples and 119 particles per liter in the most contaminated sample. They also tested water samples from streams from eight locations, but only three had microplastics, perhaps because the streams were able to remove contamination.
In his previous work, Napper found that each cycle of a washing machine can release 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers, and that plastic bags that claim to be biodegradable were still intact after three years in the natural environment.
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