By Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in Switzerland (EMPA).
February 1, 2022
Dominik Brunner, an Empa researcher, and colleagues from Utrecht University and Austria’s Central Institute for Meteorology and Geophysics are conducting a new study to determine how much plastic is being emitted from the atmosphere. The study found that some nanoplastics can travel more than 2000 kilometers through the air. According to the measurements, approximately 43 trillion microplastic particles land in Switzerland every single year. Researchers are still unsure of the exact number. According to the study, there could be as many as 3,000 tonnes worth of nanoplastics covering Switzerland each year, from the remote Alps down to the urban lowlands. These numbers are quite high in comparison to other studies. More research is needed to confirm these numbers.
The study is a new scientific frontier because nanoplastics spread through the atmosphere is still not fully understood. The result of Brunner’s research is the most accurate record of air pollution by nanoplastics ever made. Brunner and his coworkers have developed a chemical technique to count plastic particles. They use a mass-spectrometer to determine the contamination of the samples.
The scientists studied a small area at an altitude of 3106 meters at the top of the mountain “Hoher Sonnenblick” in the “Hohe Tauern” National Park in Austria. Since 1886, this observatory is home to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics. Elke Ludewig, a meteorologist and Arctic researcher, runs the observatory. Since the observatory was established in late 19th-century, it has only been operational for four days. The station was also used as a base to study the spread of nanoplastics into remote areas.
Scientists removed a small portion of the snow layer around a marker each day at 8 AM. Then they carefully stored it. Contamination of the samples by nanoplastics in the air or on the scientists’ clothes was a particular challenge. Researchers had to be still when their colleague handled an open sample in the laboratory.
European weather and wind data were used to trace the origin of these tiny particles. The greatest amount of nanoplastics is released into the atmosphere in densely populated areas, according to the researchers. Around 30% of nanoplastic particles found on the mountain’s top are from 200km radius, mostly cities. However, plastics from the world’s oceans apparently also get into the air via the spray of the waves. Around 10% of the particles measured in the study were blown onto the mountain by wind and weather over 2000 kilometers – some of them from the Atlantic.
Nanoparticles in your bloodstream
Around 60% of the plastic produced to date is waste. It is estimated that over 8300 million tonnes have been produced in the world. This waste erodes due to weathering effects and mechanical wear from macro-, micro-, and nanoparticles. However, discarded plastic is not the only source. Everyday plastic products like packaging and clothing release nanoplastics. These particles are so small that they can be compared to gases in their movement in the air.
Other than plastics, there are many other tiny particles. The air is abrasive and the world is buzzing with it. It is not yet clear if this type of air pollution poses any health risk to humans. Nanoparticles are not like microparticles and do not end up in the stomach. They are sucked into the lungs via respiration. There, their size may enable them to cross the cell blood barrier and enter the bloodstream. It remains to be seen if this is dangerous or dangerous.
Reference: “Nanoplastics transport to the remote, high-altitude Alps” by Dušan Materic, Elke Ludewig, Dominik Brunner, Thomas Röckmann and Rupert Holzinger, 9 July 2021, Environmental Pollution.