A new study finds that nanoplastics travel more than 2,000 kilometers through the air to settle on the most inaccessible mountain peaks
According to figures from a study by the University of Utrecht and the Austrian Central Institute for Meteorology and Geophysics, about 43 billion miniature plastic particles land in Switzerland every year. Researchers still don’t agree on the exact number. But according to the study’s estimates, it could be up to 3,000 tons of nanoplastics that cover Switzerland each year, from the remote Alps to the urban lowlands. 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 nanoplastic air pollution ever made. To count the plastic particles, Brunner and his colleagues have developed a chemical method that determines the contamination of the samples with a mass spectrometer.
Shoveling snow at an altitude of 3,000 meters
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 only been out of business for four days. The research station has also served as a base for the study on the spread of nanoplastics in remote areas.
Every day, and in all weather conditions, scientists removed a part of the upper layer of snow around a marker at eight in the morning and carefully stored it. The contamination of the samples by nanoplastics present in the air or on the scientists’ clothing made the 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 highest 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 within 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 spray from waves. About 10% of the particles measured in the study were carried up the mountain by wind and weather over 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. Everyday use of plastic products, such as packaging and clothing, releases nanoplastics. Particles of this size are so light that their movement in air can be compared to that of gases.
In addition to plastics, there are all kinds of tiny particles. From the sand of the Sahara to the brake pads, everything buzzes in the air in the form of abrasion. It is not yet clear 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 aspirated to the bottom of the lungs through respiration, where their size may 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.