Plastic is light, hygienic, cheap to produce, all-purpose, it has simplified our lives enormously – and it is found virtually everywhere in nature around the globe. In a recent study, a European research team with scientists from Utrecht University, the University of Copenhagen and the Free University of Brussels found nanoplastics in the ice of the polar regions for the first time. They were able to detect the tiny particles, smaller than a thousandth of a millimeter, in an ice core from the Greenland ice sheet dating back to the 1960s and in Antarctic fast ice.
When plastics began their successful advance in the middle of the last century, hardly anyone thought about the negative consequences these practical, universally applicable materials would one day have on animals and ecosystems. And today, a good 70 years and more than ten billion tons of plastics produced later, we find it as macro-, micro- and nanoplastics in every corner of our planet. Nanoplastics had already been found on mountain peaks in the Alps, in seawater and in rivers, and now that researchers have detected the tiny particles in the ice of Greenland and Antarctica, it can be assumed that nanoplastics are present everywhere on Earth in the atmosphere, in the soils, in glaciers, in all waters and oceans.
The sources and transport pathways of nanoplastic particles are not yet as well understood as those of microplastics. However, the first studies of nanoplastics in the environment suggest that the particles are created by natural erosion – by physical, chemical and biological processes – and are transported by wind and water to remote regions such as the Arctic and Antarctic.
“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 the 1960s. So organisms in that region, and likely all over the world, have been exposed to it for quite some time now.”
Dr. Dušan Materić, Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht (IMAU), and lead author of the study.
For the current study, the scientists took, on the one hand, a 14-meter-long ice core from the Greenland ice sheet, which depicts the deposits from the years 1965 to 2015. The average concentration of nanoplastics in ice is 13.2 nanograms per milliliter, and the concentration was above average in the late 1960s, already at about 40 nanograms per milliliter. The scientists were able to assign almost half of the particles to polyethylene, which is one of the most widely used types of polymers, typically in the form of disposable packaging and films. Particles originating from tires and PET fragments were also detectable in large proportions.
On the other hand, the researchers examined an ice core from fast ice in McMurdo Sound in East Antarctica that contained an even higher concentration of nanoplastics, averaging 52.3 nanograms per milliliter. Here, however, they found only three polymer types, polyethylene, PET and polypropylene, with PE making up the largest share at over 50 percent. They did not find any tire particles, however.
The research team was surprised at the amounts of nanoplastics in the ice. “Now we know that nanoplastics are transported to these corners of the Earth in these quantities. This indicates that nanoplastics are really a bigger pollution problem than we thought,” Dr. Materić said.
The effects of nanoplastics on organisms are not well understood because of the difficulty in detecting the tiny particles. However, previous studies have already shown that nanoparticles can be toxic and impede growth and development, as well as lead to malformations during larval development and the formation of reactive oxygen species. In humans, nanoplastics, can damage cells, cause inflammation and also produce increased oxygen radicals.
Julia Hager, PolarJournal
Link to the study: Dušan Materić, Helle Astrid Kjær, Paul Vallelonga, Jean-Louis Tison, Thomas Röckmann, Rupert Holzinger. Nanoplastics measurements in Northern and Southern polar ice. Environmental Research, Volume 208, 2022, 112741, ISSN 0013-9351, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2022.112741
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