Microplastics have been found in Antarctic snow for the very first time by a team of scientists from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
The study provides yet further evidence of the global scale of the microplastic problem, and shows that nowhere is safe from the negative effects of these microscopic particles.
Microplastics in the Antarctic
“Most people see Antarctica as a pristine, relatively untouched place, but a new study published today has revealed the presence of microplastics – plastic pieces much smaller than a grain of rice – in freshly fallen Antarctic snow for the first time,” states a university press release.
“These findings, ‘First evidence of microplastics in Antarctic snow’ published in the scientific journal The Cryosphere, bring light to a serious threat to the Antarctic. Research has found that microplastics have negative impacts on environmental health (limiting growth, reproduction, and general biological functions in organisms, as well as negative implications for humans).
“On a wider scale, the presence of microplastic particles in the air has the potential to influence the climate by accelerating melting of snow and ice.”
Alex Alves, a PhD student at the University of Canterbury, collected samples from the Ross Ice Shelf during a visit there as part of her studies.
“When Alex travelled to Antarctica in 2019, we were optimistic that she wouldn’t find any microplastics in such a pristine and remote location,” Associate Professor in Environmental Physics Dr Laura Revell says.
In addition to more remote sites, “we asked her to collect snow off the Scott Base and McMurdo Station roadways, so she’d have at least some microplastics to study”.
Once the samples were analysed, it became clear that there were plastic particles in every single sample taken from the remote area of the ice-bound continent.
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Aves recently graduated with a Master of Antarctic Studies degree with Distinction. She says she was shocked by her findings.
“It’s incredibly sad but finding microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow highlights the extent of plastic pollution into even the most remote regions of the world,” she says. “We collected snow samples from 19 sites across the Ross Island region of Antarctica and found microplastics in all of these.”
Aves analysed snow samples using a special chemical analysis technique to identify the type of plastic particles present. The plastic particles were also examined under a microscope to identify their colour, size and shape – all important observational information for future work.
The reported an average of 29 microplastic particles per litre of melted snow, which is higher than marine concentrations reported previously from the surrounding Ross Sea and in Antarctic sea ice.
Immediately next to the scientific bases on Ross Island, Scott Base, and McMurdo Station, the largest station in Antarctica, the density of microplastics was nearly 3-times higher, with similar concentrations to those found in debris from an Italian glacier. Thirteen different types of plastic were found, with the most common being PET, commonly used to make soft drink bottles and clothing.
The possible sources of microplastics were examined. Atmospheric modelling suggested microplastics may have travelled thousands of kilometres through the air. The researchers also believe it is equally likely the presence of humans in Antarctica has established a microplastic ‘footprint’.
Antarctica New Zealand environmental advisor Natasha Gardiner has described this UC research as “of huge value”.
“Alex and her colleagues’ research enables Antarctic Treaty Parties to make evidence-based decisions regarding the urgent need to reduce plastic pollution in the future. It improves our understanding of the extent of plastic pollution near to Scott Base and where it’s coming from. We can use this information to reduce plastic pollution at its source and inform our broader environmental management practices,” she says.
“Importantly, this research project also informs policy at the international level, and we have submitted a paper on the findings to the forthcoming Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.”
Microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic that are either designed to be that size or become so through weathering – act as vectors for harmful xenoestrogens, as well as causing physical damage to organisms, especially microorganisms and juvenile organisms like baby fish.
The scale of the problem is already mind-boggling. Scientific models now suggest that microplastics are so ubiquitous that they are circulating like a ‘force of nature’, reaching the most remote places – even places humans have never set foot before.
In one recent study, researchers at the New York University School of Medicine compared stool samples from newborns, infants and adults to ascertain concentrations of two different kinds of plastic in them. All of the subjects were from New York State.
First of all, they noticed that all of the samples contained at least one of the two types of microplastic they were looking for. This shouldn’t be surprising, given what we already known about the ubiquity of these substances.
The real shock came when they compared the baby samples to those of the adults. In the baby samples, there were at least TEN times as much microplastic. Yes, that’s right: TEN times.
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Septuagenarians in the mid-1980s had significantly higher testosterone levels than 55-year-olds today.
The collapse in testosterone levels has been well documented with various publications tackling the issue.
Environmental factors as well as a change in diet have potentially caused this shift.
But one of the most curious points about this drop in testosterone levels is how older men’s T levels are significantly lower than what they were 30-40 years ago.
In fact, the average 70-year-old man’s testosterone levels were over 100 points higher than the average 55-year-old’s testosterone levels today.
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So how could this be happening?
The researchers believe that the way babies are consuming such high levels of microplastics is through chew-toys like dummies and from crawling around on carpets that contain microplastics.
Although scientists once believed microplastics would just pass through the gastrointestinal tract without causing any harm, recent research suggests the smallest pieces are able to cross cell membranes and enter our circulation.
This is an obvious cause for concern, and all the more so because research on microplastics in lab animals has caused cell death, inflammation and metabolic disorders.
Human research is also beginning to substantiate these potential harms. A new study has shown, for instance, that microplastics can alter the shape of human lung cells and affect their functioning.
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