Microplastics have been found in snow in some of the most remote parts of the world, including the Arctic and Alps, in an alarming new study into their global spread.
Scientists noted high concentrations of the tiny pieces of plastic debris in snow at all of the sites they tested in the Swiss Alps and three places in Germany – Helgoland, Bavaria and Bremen.
They were even discovered in remote areas of the Arctic, including on the Svalbard group of islands, and in snow on drifting ice floes.
The study, published in the journal Science Advances, said they are transported by the atmosphere before being washed out of the air, especially by snow.
The white stuff is “extremely efficient” at washing microplastic out of the atmosphere, according to one of the study’s authors, Dr Gunnar Gerdts.
Dr Melanie Bergmann, from the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, in Germany, said: “It’s readily apparent that the majority of the microplastic in the snow comes from the air.”
This raises questions, she said, about how much plastic humans are inhaling as most research has focused on how animals or human beings absorb microplastic from what they eat.
A 2018 study found they were present in “nearly all” plastic water bottles that scientists studied.
“To date there are virtually no studies investigating the extent to which human beings are subject to microplastic contamination,” she said.
“But once we’ve determined that large quantities of microplastic can also be transported by the air, it naturally raises the question as to whether and how much plastic we’re inhaling.”
Previous research has shown that grains of pollen, which are around the same size as the microplastic particles, are transported in the air from the middle latitudes to the Arctic.
According to the researchers, a major portion of the microplastic in Europe, and even more in the Arctic, comes from the atmosphere and snow.
Dr Bergmann said: “This additional transport route could also explain the high amounts of microplastic that we’ve found in the Arctic sea ice and the deep sea in previous studies.”
A study of ocean samples collected by the yacht Turn The Tide On Plastic on the 2018 Volvo Ocean Race found 26 microplastic particles per cubic metre of seawater.
Sky’s Ocean Rescue campaign encourages people to reduce their single-use plastics. You can find out more about the campaign and how to get involved at www.skyoceanrescue.com