Story at a glance
- A group of international scientists studied more than 200,000 gallons of air in the French Pyrenees.
- The purpose was to analyze microplastics by looking at where they come from and how they travel.
- The scientists found that every sample they looked at contained microplastics, and many had traveled nearly 60 miles across the planet.
Little pieces of plastic can be found anywhere and everywhere, and researchers have found there is no place too high or low for them to reach.
Plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found in the ocean and Great Lakes, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. Pieces that are less than 5 millimeters in length are considered microplastics, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
New research has discovered that the life cycle of microplastics can span much farther than just the oceans, and they can travel as far as the poles, to Mount Everest or to other remote regions around the planet.
In a study published this week, a group of international scientists analyzed 10,000 cubic meters, about 264,000 gallons, of air a week between June and October of 2017 at the Pic du Midi Observatory in the French Pyrenees. Their results found that every sample contained microplastics, and many had traveled more than 95 kilometers, about 59 miles.
They also used weather data to calculate the trajectories of different air masses that followed each sample and discovered that some of the microplastics had traveled from as far as North Africa and North America.
According to The Guardian, Steve Allen, the study’s main author, explained that plastic particles are able to travel such great distances because of the high altitude “once it hits the troposphere, it’s like a superfast highway,” said Allen.
Researchers also found that the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean were some of the microplastic sources, but other potential sources identified included North Africa, Spain, Portugal, France, U.K. and the U.S. and Canada, too.
“Plastic leaving the ocean into the air that high, it shows there is no eventual sink for this plastic. It’s just moving around and around in an indefinite cycle,” said Allen.
However, researchers noted that there was limited information to understand a more specific source, such as if the microplastics originated from agriculture, industrial or road transport. The study was also done during only part of the year, and researchers expect seasonal variations.
Importantly, researchers also noted that the amount of microplastics identified do not pose a health risk, despite them being small enough for humans to breathe in.
NOAA has also said that many microplastics come from health and beauty products in the form of microbeads, sometimes found in cleansers and toothpastes. Microbeads can easily pass through water filtration systems and they end up in the ocean and Great Lakes, mostly posing a potential threat to aquatic life.
Under former President Obama, the Microbead-Free Water Act of 2015 was passed which banned plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.
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