A new study finds that nanoplastics travel more than 2,000 kilometers through the air to settle atop the most inaccessible mountains.
According numbers from a study From the University of Utrecht and the Austrian Central Institute for Meteorology and Geophysics, around 43 trillion miniature plastic particles arrive in Switzerland every year. Researchers still don’t agree on the exact number. But, according to the study’s estimates, it could be as many as 3,000 tonnes of nanoplastics covering Switzerland each year, from the remote Alps to the urban plains. These estimates are very high compared to previous studies, indicating that they will need to be verified by further research.
The study is uncharted scientific territory, as the spread of nanoplastics through the air remains largely unknown. The result of Brunner’s research is the most accurate record of air pollution from nanoplastics ever made. To count plastic particles, Brunner and his colleagues developed a chemical method that determines sample contamination with a mass spectrometer.
Snow removal at 3,000 meters high
Scientists studied a small area at an altitude of 3,106 meters on top of the Hoher Sonnenblick mountain in Austria’s Hohe Tauern National Park. Since 1886, an observatory of the Central Institute of Meteorology and Geodynamics has been located here. Since research began here in the late 19th century, the observatory has been out of operation for just four days. The research station also served as a base for the study on the spread of nanoplastics in remote areas.
Every day, and in all weather conditions, the scientists removed a portion of the top layer of snow around a marker at 8 am and carefully stored it. Contamination of the samples by nanoplastics present in the air or on the scientists’ clothing made measurements very complicated. In the lab, researchers sometimes had to stand still when a colleague handled an open sample.
The origin of the tiny particles was traced with the help of meteorological and wind data in Europe. The researchers were able to show that the greatest emission of nanoplastics into the atmosphere occurs in densely populated urban areas. About 30% of the nanoplastic particles measured at the top of the mountain originate from a radius of 200 kilometers, mainly in cities. However, it appears that plastics from the world’s oceans also find their way into the air through wave spray. About 10% of the particles measured in the study were carried uphill by wind and weather for more than 2,000 kilometers, some of them coming from the Atlantic.
Nanoparticles in the bloodstream
It is estimated that to date, more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide, of which approximately 60% is waste. These residues are eroded by the effects of weathering and mechanical abrasion from macro to micro and nanoparticles. But discarded plastic is by no means the only source. Daily use of plastic products such as packaging and clothing releases nanoplastics. Particles of this size are so light that their movement in the air can be compared to that of gases.
In addition to plastics, there are all kinds of tiny particles. From Sahara sand to brake pads, everything hums in the air in the form of abrasion. It remains unclear whether this type of air pollution poses a potential threat to human health. Nanoparticles, unlike microparticles, do not end up in the stomach. They are sucked deep into the lungs through breathing, where their size can allow them to cross the blood cell barrier and enter the human bloodstream. However, it has not yet been investigated how specifically this can be harmful to health.