Nanoplastic contamination has been detected in the polar regions for the first time, indicating that the tiny particles are now present throughout the world.
Nanoparticles are smaller and more toxic than microplastics, which have already been found around the world, but the impact of both on human health is unknown.
Analysis of a core from the Greenland ice sheet showed that nanoplastic contamination has been contaminating the remote region for at least 50 years. The researchers were also surprised to find that a quarter of the particles came from vehicle tires.
The nanoparticles are very light and are believed to be carried to Greenland by winds from cities in North America and Asia. Nanoplastics found in sea ice in McMurdo Sound in Antarctica are likely to have been transported by ocean currents to the remote continent.
Plastics are part of the cocktail of chemical pollution that permeates the planet, which has exceeded the safe limit for humanity, scientists reported Tuesday. Plastic pollution has been found from the top of Mount Everest to the depths of the oceans. People are known to eat and breathe microplastics and another recent study found that the particles cause damage to human cells.
Dušan Materić, from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and who led the new research, said: “We detected nanoplastics in the farthest corners of the Earth, both in the southern and northern polar regions. Nanoplastics are very active from a toxicological point of view compared to, for example, microplastics, and so this is very important.”
The Greenland ice core was 14 meters deep, representing snow layers dating back to 1965. “The surprise for me was not that we detected nanoplastics there, but that we detected them throughout the core,” Materić said. “So even though nanoplastics are considered a new pollutant, it’s actually been there for decades.”
Microplastics had been found in Arctic ice before, but Materić’s team had to develop new detection methods to analyze the much smaller nanoparticles. Previous work had also suggested that tire-worn dust is likely to be a major source of ocean microplastics and the new research provides real-world evidence.
The new studio published in the journal Environmental Research, found 13 nanograms of nanoplastics per milliliter of melted ice in Greenland, but four times as much in Antarctic ice. This is probably because the process of sea ice formation concentrates the particles.
In Greenland, half of the nanoplastics were polyethylene (PE), used in single-use plastic bags and packaging. A quarter was tire particles and a fifth was polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used in beverage bottles and clothing.
Half of the nanoplastics in Antarctic ice were also PE, but polypropylene was the next most common, used for food containers and pipes. No tire particles were found in Antarctica, which is further from populated areas. The researchers sampled only the center of the ice cores to avoid contamination, and tested their system with control samples of pure water.
Previous studies have found plastic nanoparticles in UK rivers, North Atlantic seawater and lakes in Siberia, and snow in the Austrian Alps. “But we assume that the hotspots are continents where people live,” Materić said.
The researchers wrote: “Nanoplastics have shown various adverse effects on organisms. Human exposure to nanoplastics may result in cytotoxicity [and] inflammation.”
“The most important thing as a researcher is to accurately measure [the pollution] and then assess the situation,” said Materić. “We are at a very early stage to draw conclusions. But it seems that everywhere we’ve looked, it’s a very big problem. How big? We do not know it yet”.
Research into the impact of plastic pollution on health is beginning and Dr Fay Couceiro is leading a new group on microplastics at the University of Portsmouth, UK. One of its first projects is with the Portsmouth Hospitals College NHS Trust and will investigate the presence of microplastics in the lungs of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma.
The research will investigate whether recently carpeted or vacuumed rooms, which can have a high number of fibers in the air, trigger the conditions in patients. “In addition to the environmental damage caused by plastics, there is growing concern about what the inhalation and ingestion of microplastics is doing to our bodies,” said Couceiro.
His recent research suggested that people may be breathe between 2,000 and 7,000 microplastics a day in their homes. Professor Anoop Jivan Chauhan, Respiratory Specialist at the University of Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “This data is really quite shocking. Potentially, each of us inhales or swallows up to 1.8 million microplastics every year and, once in the body, it is hard to imagine that they do not cause irreversible damage.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism