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Surprisingly, it rains on a remote and seemingly untouched part of the French Pyrenees mountains that, according to scientists, such particles may be floating everywhere.
Microplastic – Fragments less than a fifth of an inch collapsed from larger pieces of plastic – were found in rivers, lakes, seas, and agricultural soils. However, very few microplastic studies have been performed in the air. He found out that the air above these mountains has about as much plastic pollution as the air over Paris or Dongguan, a large industrial city in China.
Steve Allen, a researcher at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, was part of the team that devised the Pyrenees experiment.
"I do not know if you've ever seen a plastic bag flapping on a fence until it disappears," he says. "Well, we thought it might not just have disappeared, so we looked for it a bit higher."
Higher, which means 4,500 feet on a mountain. Allen's team set up collectors there for five months to collect plastic particles as they fell to the ground. "We expected to find some," says Allen. "We did not expect to find as much as we did."
In fact, they found an average of 365 plastic particles per day on a square meter collector. "We had expected it somehow in a city where it was blown around," he says, "but high up, the number is amazing."
Writing in the journal Nature Geoscience the researchers found several types of microplastics floating in the Pyrenees: fibers from clothing and bits from plastic bags, plastic films, and packaging materials.
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And apparently it is not local. Only a few small villages are within 60 kilometers of the study area.
Scientists know how dust from the Sahara is blown across the Atlantic, but "they essentially know nothing about how [microplastics] moves," says Deonie Allen of the French-based EcoLab, which has worked with Steve Allen on research has and is married to him.
"We do not have such material in nature," says Deonie Allen, noting that microplastics exist in different shapes and densities, which may affect how long they stay in the wind. The researchers suggest that rain or snow carries some particles to the ground, but they do not need precipitation to fall to the ground.
Allen says that if so many micro-plastics succeed in reaching the Pyrenees at half-height, theoretically it could be anywhere, floating hundreds of miles from its original source.
And some microplastics can probably be inhaled. "We … do not know what they do to people," says Allen. "They are a brand new [type of] pollution, but there are so many of them and it is growing so fast that we really need to learn something about it."
Chelsea Rochman, a plastics researcher at the University of Toronto, has found microplastics as remote from civilization as the Arctic. She says this new study shows that "the use of plastic materials and the way we dispose of them has led to global contamination of more than just inhabited areas."
In fact, she says, "Plastic pollution can be the marker of our time."