Plastic Particles Are Raining Down on Remote Areas

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
CC BY 2.0. camerashake – A view of the French Pyrenees, where microplastic research was conducted.

Scientists are shocked at the quantity of microplastics deposited daily in the French Pyrenees.

Microplastics have been found in insect larvae, house dust, table salt, and the deepest ocean trenches. Now scientists have shown that the tiny plastic pieces are even raining down on us from the sky. A new study just published in Nature is causing alarm the world over. Scientists took samples in remote locations of the Pyrenees mountains in France and were shocked to discover that, on average, 365 pieces of plastic particles, fibers, and films are deposited per square meter every day.

This number is on par with research conducted in two major urban centers – Paris, France and Dongguan, China – where higher amounts of pollution are to be expected; but to find it in a sample site that is 6 kilometres from the nearest village and 120 kilometres from the nearest city was "astounding and worrying," in the words of lead study author Steve Allen of the EcoLab research institute in Toulouse.

The most common plastics found were polystyrene and polyethylene, which are used in single-use packaging plastic bags. From the Guardian:

"The level of plastic particle rain correlated with the strength of the winds and analysis of the available data showed the microplastics could be carried 100km in the air. However, modelling indicates they could be carried much further. Saharan desert dust is already known to be carried thousands of kilometres by wind."

The study was conducted in winter, and it's believed that numbers are higher in summer when particles are drier and lighter and more easily transported by wind.

There is burgeoning concern about the health effects of micoplastics and what happens when we come into contact with them repeatedly. We do know that they harm wildlife, creating a false sense of satiety over time and leaching toxic chemicals, and they'd likely do the same to humans. There is concern about what happens when particles reach respiratory size. Another researcher on the team, Deonie Allen, called it a big unknown.

"We don’t want it to end up something like asbestos." Plastic fibres have been found in human lung tissue, with those researchers suggesting they are "candidate agents contributing to the risk of lung cancer".

It's a chilling thought that no place on Earth is left untouched by plastic pollution, and more urgent than ever that we tackle this issue on a personal level, while continuing to fight for broader political support.