Scientists have found microplastics in a remote, pristine part of the French Pyrenees mountains, according to a new study published on Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience. The researchers found that there was as much microplastic pollution in the area they studied as in cities such as Paris or Dongguan, a large industrial city in China with a densely populated urban center.
Microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic smaller than a fifth of an inch. While plastic degrades slowly, it is often broken into smaller pieces through sunlight, wind, and other abrasive natural processes—creating microplastics.
In the past, studies investigating microplastics have largely focused on contamination of water and soil, with very few studies examining microplastics in the air. For this study, the researchers collected and examined microplastics in the air at 4,500 feet above sea level in the Pyrenees mountains for five months. They recorded a daily collection rate of 365 microplastic particles per square meter.
"It's astounding and worrying that so many particles were found," Steve Allen, one of the researchers, told the Guardian.
Analysis showed the microplastics could have traveled up to 95 kilometers (about 59 miles) from their original location. Researchers are still unsure exactly how microplastics travel through the air, but the fact that the study found microplastics in such a remote location suggests that they might, in fact, be virtually everywhere.
Increasing research on microplastics has documented their permeation of the food chain. Larval fish have been found to consume microplastics in their first days of life. And because fish are an essential protein source both for people and larger marine animals, this means that microplastics are entering the food supply through fish. Microplastic has also been found in the deepest parts of the oceans, in the soil, and in human stools.
And now, researchers have documented microplastics traveling vast distances through the air—and are concerned that they are being inhaled.
"If you go outside with a UV light, set at a wavelength of 400 nanometers, and shine it sideways you'll see all kinds of plastic particles in the air fluoresce," Deonie Allen, one of the authors of the study, told National Geographic. "It's almost worse indoors. It's all a bit terrifying."
In fish and marine life, microplastics have been shown to obstruct digestive tracts, leading to a reduced urge to eat and altered feeding behavior, which is ultimately damaging for growth and reproduction. And because of an exorbitant presence of microplastics in the stomach, some aquatic creatures starve and die.
Researchers have also expressed concern about the chemicals within plastics. The effects of those chemicals range from endocrine disruption (weight gain, infertility, and other hormonal imbalances) to cancer.
Still, the overall impact of the ubiquity of microplastics on our health—and on the broader ecosystems in which they're now found—remains unknown. "If it is going to be a problem, it is going to be a very big problem," Steve Allen told the Guardian. "I don't think there is an organism on Earth that is immune to this."