Sustainability Environment

Plastic pollution discovered at North and South poles for first time

Ruzdi Ekenheim/ iStock

Story at a glance

  • A group of scientists studied the level of nanoplastics in both the North and South pole regions.
  • They found significant amounts of nanoplastics at both poles, the first such discovery.
  • Nanoplastics are considered toxic and can move through the air and become fragmented in the environment.

For the first time, researchers found significant amounts of plastic particles in areas considered the most pristine and untouched by human activity, proving just how toxic and far-reaching plastic pollution is.  

Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, the University of Copenhagen and the Université de Bruxelles in Belgium published a study that found significant amounts of nanoplastics in both the North and South polar regions, the first time anyone has made such a discovery in polar ice. The new research indicates that nanoplastic contamination has been taking place for decades and organisms around the world have been exposed to it.  

Nanoplastics are considered even more toxic than microplastics, as they are smaller in size and have unique abilities to transport in the air and become even more fragmented in the environment. 

Researchers defined nanoplastics as plastic particles smaller than a micrometer in size. 


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In their research, scientists dug 14-meters deep to collect ice cores from Greenland and sea ice cores from Antarctica, finding significant amounts of nanoplastics that were carried over by wind and water currents. 

“Our data suggest that nanoplastics pollution is not a new problem. We are only now becoming aware of it, because we have recently developed the right method to measure it. In the Greenland core, we see nanoplastics pollution happening all the way from 1960s. So, organisms in that region, and likely all over the world, have been exposed to it for quite some time now,” said Dusan Materic, lead author of the study from Utrecht University, in a press release. 

Researchers identified multiple types of nanoplastics in polar ice, the most prominent being polyethylene. It’s one of the most utilized types of plastic, found in single-used packaging materials like disposable bags and food containers, housewares and pipes. Polyethylene accounted for more than half of the particles found.  

Within Greenland’s ice core, researchers also found nanoparticles originating from polyethylene terephalate, known as polyester, which is used heavily in the clothing industry and found in water and soft drink bottles.  

Plastic pollution is a serious problem, with a separate study published in December finding the life cycle of microplastics can travel from the oceans all the way to Mount Everest and other remote regions around the planet. 

Nanoplastics have adverse effects on organisms exposed to it, as they can affect growth, induce delayed development and cause subcellular changes. In humans exposed to nanoplastics, researchers said they can cause damage to cells and inflammation. 

Given the extent to which nanoplastics have been found, Materic and his team said more research needs to be done to determine how toxic these materials can be and how they contribute to pollution.  


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